Why People Don 'Creepy' Clown Costumes To Scare Others

Oct 19, 2016

Alleged scary clown sightings keep happening across the country, which led to a widespread concern – so much so that Target pulled clown masks off its shelves two weeks before Halloween.

Credit Flickr user Rob / "Clown" (CC v. 2.0)

But what kinds of people find it appealing to dress up as a scary clown to terrorize people, or what kind of personality traits can indicate that kind of behavior?

Clowns have been portrayed in a scary manner in some horror movies, like “It,” which is based on Stephen King’s novel. “Creepy” clown sightings and threats also have occurred in northern Illinois – including DeKalb and Rockford – but there have been no criminal charges made or official cases filed so far as a result. That’s according to area law enforcement and Winnebago County State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato.

Bruscato says there’s one important distinction that people need to understand: Simply “dressing up in a costume and being in public, while it may make people feel uneasy, doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of a violation of criminal statutes,” he said.

Bruscato says that, when the person intentionally does something while in a costume, it could warrant an arrest or other legal action. That could include assault, disorderly conduct or stalking.

Even though a lot of the reported sightings in Rockford have been unfounded, Bruscato says his office takes claims of harmful acts seriously and they certainly are not dismissed.

Joel Lynch chairs Rockford University’s psychology department. He says news coverage of these creepy clown sightings – and the social panic resulting from it – may feed into narcissistic tendencies of someone who may be tempted to scare people like that. Lynch says people who scare others by acting strangely while dressed as a clown may thrive on a power complex – but this is an unusual copycat situation.

“Usually if someone is engaging in copycat types of behavior, they want all the attention to be brought upon them that comes with all the news coverage,” Lynch said, “and you’re really not getting the attention brought onto you because nobody can actually identify who that is underneath the costume.”

All in all, Lynch says people will see and hear less about these incidents once people stop talking about it. Until then, professional clowns are trying to reassure the public that actual clowns mean no harm and only try to bring joy to audiences. That includes Steve Copeland, who is a resident clown for the International Clown Hall of Fame in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

“They aren’t clowns,” Copeland said. “That’s the word everyone uses, but they’re not clowns; they’re just people in masks. Really, they’re no more clowns than I would be a doctor if I wore a lab coat and a stethoscope around my neck.”

Copeland says actual clowns are trained to be aware of people who may be visibly uncomfortable during a performance, to be sympathetic and to back off. More often than not, he says, he wins those people over by the end. Copeland says he’s upset to see a lot of memes about people killing clowns in response to the sightings, however he doesn’t “plan to let it affect me personally, either, because I’m not going to let a few idiots in some masks ruin what I love to do, which is make people laugh,” he said.

Copeland says he has traveled all over the country and around the world to perform as a clown. He says he has noticed America is the only country he’s performed in that has such a widespread fear of clowns amongst its population.