Expert Benjamin Radford, speaking to PEOPLE, breaks down the spate of clown "sightings" this year: Why they are happening and what will likely happen next
For those worried about the repeated reports of creepy clowns across the country, there is good news and there is bad news.
The good news: According to one expert, the “sightings” – many without evidence, fueling 2016’s “clown panic” – are likely to die down within a few weeks, before fading into a historical footnote. They have probably already reached their pinnacle, after multiple arrests and school lockdowns.
But the bad news: The panic will just come back – if not next year, or the year after, then the year after that.
This is all according to Benjamin Radford, a folklorist and author, most recently of Bad Clowns.
Radford, speaking to PEOPLE, breaks down the spate of clown “sightings” in recent weeks, everywhere from Georgia to Maryland to Oregon. He explains why the sightings have multiplied, why they attract such interest – and what’s likely to happen next.
One thing that worries Radford in this case is the chance for overreaction: For example, in one case, police said local residents fired into the woods after becoming suspicious of the reported clowns.
“[The panic] really is scaring people,” Radford says.
What Is Going On With All These Clown Sightings?
Radford tells PEOPLE the sightings are nothing new. He refers to the most widespread form of the phenomena as “clown panics” and says they trace back decades, to the ’80s and reports of “phantom clowns” trying to lure or abduct children.
Such reports, he says, often included a white van – a familiar folkloric motif, like the hook-handed serial killer. But there were no clowns to be found beneath the stories.
What is happening today is a blend of two kinds of clown sightings, Radford says:
There are “stalker clowns,” or prankish and menacing figures who may turn up in parking lots or parks and who turn out to actually have been someone dressing up as a clown, either as a kind of stunt or for publicity. And then there are “phantom clowns,” who are often reported or “seen” by children trying to lure or abduct them, often near wooded areas.
A stalker clown is someone who actually dresses as a clown to scare or prank someone, Radford says. Such incidents in recent years have made national, and in some cases international, news. He says the first breakthrough stalker clown was in 2013 in Northampton, England, in what later turned out to be a combination of performance art and publicity stunt.
Copycats soon arose, and there were high-profile stalker clowns in Staten Island, New York, France and elsewhere, Radford says.
That’s an important distinction: “They’re essentially all copycats,” Radford says.
He says the appeal of being a stalker clown is simple: Being “creepy” – dressing as a scary clown in public, but not usually doing anything else – is usually not illegal.
Thus, it’s a “low-risk, high-reward stunt, because it’s virtually guaranteed to make local or national news,” Radford says.
(There have, however, been scattered reports recently of clowns doing more than scaring – instead chasing or assaulting people.)
Radford says phantom clown sightings are distinct from stalker clowns in that there is never evidence the clowns are real – while with stalker clowns, the threat itself may be fake, but the person is real.
What’s more, he says, the majority of these phantom sightings are made by children and are about clowns trying to lure them away – in recent cases not with candy or toys, but with money.
As pieces of folklore, he says, the phantom clown sightings are fascinating. But as pieces of fact, they are bogus.
“The fact is, to date, there are no confirmed reports of any clowns actually abducting, harming, killing [or] molesting kids,” Radford says. “There just aren’t. There are zero.”
When Are the Sightings More Common?
Radford says phantom clown “sightings” tend to be more common during periods of social uncertainty: In the ’80s, when they began, they coexisted alongside the “Satanic panic.”
“America is once again in the middle of social anxiety,” Radford says.
The apartment complex in Greenville, South Carolina, that functions as a kind of “ground zero” for this year’s clown sightings included a mix of both stalker and phantom clowns, police have said:
Both children and adults in the area reported seeing clowns – in some cases by the woods, and in others much nearer their apartments as they were walking home.
“And what’s insidious about it is it’s not always crystal clear which [kind of sighting] is which,” Radford says.
It remains unclear what may have started the clown sightings, stalker or phantom, in Greenville – if perhaps, as in previous incidents, an isolated incident of a prankster or performer spawned copycats.
Radford says that one important thing to note in Greenville’s case is the psychological effect of “priming,” such that if there is a rumor or belief going around in a community – like that kids have noticed some creepy clowns nearby – a person’s mind is primed to make connections to that event.
What’s more, he says, eyewitness testimony has well-documented flaws by both psychologists and criminologists. A witness to an event, though not intentionally lying, can be mistaken about what they say they saw.
“You have to take some of the eyewitness reports with a grain of salt,” Radford says.
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Is Social Media or the News to Blame?
In part, Radford says, yes.
Social media and the Internet have been powerful amplifiers of the clown sightings, he says. The stalker clown in England, for example, “was ripe for social media, very much a product of our time.”
As a space for sharing and spreading such sightings, the Internet is a “perfect venue.”
“You couldn’t have designed it better,” Radford says, adding, “This level of panic [and] concern would not exist without the Internet.”
That gets trickier for the news media, which is inherently drawn to topics that fascinate many people and that are drawing a lot of discussion. If something goes viral on Facebook, it might warrant news coverage, and the mere fact of news coverage validates further stories. As the “clown panic” spreads, so do possible copycats, and the cycle repeats.
“The difficulty in covering it while not promoting it is very real. … Copycats are notoriously difficult to prevent,” Radford says. “You don’t know what’s going to inspire somebody.”
He suggests that it’s important for news media to remain skeptical of such sightings without more evidence and to voice that skepticism early and often in their coverage. He also notes that just because something on social media may be widely shared or discussed does not mean it is widely endorsed and should not be taken as proof of a thing – users may interact with something for a variety of reasons, beyond believing or agreeing with it.
Remember: “This is a story in large part about folklore, this is a story about rumor,” Radford says.
Are the Clown Sightings Going to Stop? And If So, When?
Radford thinks “this particular clown panic has reached its pinnacle.”
“My expectation is that there will be a few more reports between now and Halloween and after that it will taper off,” he says. “And I would say by mid-November it will have essentially tapered off, there may be one or two more people arrested for pranks, and it’ll fade away and [be], ‘Hey remember that weird fall in 2016 when the clown panic happened?’ “
A “turning point,” Radford says, was once schools began locking down after receiving threats from people posing as scary clowns online and who were later arrested. Police also began cracking down on false reporting and the stalker clowns, as in a recent case in Kentucky.
Still, Radford says, the elements of clown panic, and the ensuing social media and news coverage, are an “irresistible stew” to many.
“These archetypes are in our culture, they are not going away,” he says. “I guarantee you there will be another phantom clown panic – maybe two years, maybe five years, but it’ll happen again.”