Don't Worry About the Clowns Making Threats; Worry About the Ones Who Don't

The nationwide clown scare has swept North Texas. After a weekend of social media produced a handful of separate clown-related threats to at least four Dallas high schools, police and school officials had to handle the obligatory police investigation as well as inquiries from worried parents.

Monday's fun included this improbable tweet from Dallas Independent School District:  

For those readers lucky enough not to know what a clown threat is, let us explain. It's an internet thing in which people — frequently teenagers, natch — either dress up as scary clowns or post messages online that they are going to dress as scary clowns and do scary clown violence. This scares the children and it scares many of those in charge of looking out for the children. People have been arrested for scary clown activities in other states. All it takes to stoke the fires is a restless teen to send some messages and consume the time and energy of police and school officials who, presumably, have better things to do. This is a cyber version of some student pulling a fire alarm and watching as a school empties. 

There are actually two phenomena going on here, both psychological. The first is the bloodless but antisocial intentions of those who make these threats. The second is the ripple effect of mass hysteria they cause. Right now, DFW is suffering from both.

First, the threat-makers: It's pretty easy to spin up the police by threatening schools. The Zodiac killer got good headlines when he did so in California, and that was well before the recent school massacres. Schools act with an abundance of caution, and who can blame them?  

But a Psychology Today article from 2013 argues that those who make threats are not the ones we need to be worrying about, in clown makeup or not: 

In simple terms, real bombers bomb; they don’t make bomb threats. The majority of police calls related to bombs are false alarms, made by drunks, the mentally ill, revenge-seeking ex-employees, or the kid who doesn’t want to take his third period French exam. ... Dr. Fred Calhoun and Steve Weston have done significant research, training, and writing to support their groundbreaking model: some people “howl” – make overt threats, draw attention to themselves, frighten others intentionally, and some people “hunt” – develop a hidden plan, acquire the tools or weapons to harm others, work in stealth, and attack with no warning.

The bomb scare has become the clown scare. Those who plant bombs and attack schools don't advertise the attacks on social media or anywhere else. If only they did; at least then there'd be a way to stop the attacks.    

The second psychological phenomenon influencing North Texas is mass hysteria. This has other catchy names, like collective hysteria, group hysteria or collective obsessional behavior. Let's pause for a moment and talk about sighting of a monkey man in Delhi, India. In 2001, dozens of people reported a vicious, 4-foot creature was running amok in India, scratching and biting victims. Hundreds of calls about sightings swamped authorities in a week. The panic reached Indian police, which formed a task force to get to the bottom of the alleged attacks. The Hindu newspaper noted:

"By sending out so many men in khaki to catch a 'phantom', the police officially and authoritatively confirmed its existence; promoting the mass delusion and panic rather than dissolving it," says the secretary-general of Indian Rationalist Association, Sanal Edamaruku.

Do we have to now mention there is no Monkey Man and no attacks at all? Welcome to the world of mass hysteria, where the way people around are reacting poisons your mind and conjures up threats where none exist.

And yes, this is happening with clowns in North Texas.  This report from WFAA illustrates the mood, reporting that "Late Sunday in Fort Worth, police responded to a report of a person dressed as a clown running down the sidewalk and yelling. Officers couldn't find the supposed clown, however, and no report was taken, as they couldn't determine that a criminal offense had occurred," the TV station reported. Concerned citizens placed a similar call to Garland PD, and again no clown was spotted. 
So either oddball citizens are taking to the streets in clown costumes to freak people out — risking a gunshot in firearm-friendly Texas — or we have ourselves a case of the Monkey Man. If you're scared of a clown, you'll invent one in your mind when you see a homeless man in the backyard or a jogger on the roadside. 

Here's the truly odd part. Most cases of mass hysteria include physical manifestations of the fear people feel. This is most prevalent in cases in which people are afraid they are made sick by witches or (more modern) toxic chemicals. They suffer real symptoms, often shared by others, from imaginary threats. We haven't gotten there yet, making this a mild case of mass hysteria.

Back in the bad old days of witch hunts, it took a long time for mass hysteria to spread. Books like The Hammer of Witches helped spread the mass hysteria, as did the witch hunters who plied their trade. Today's media is lightning fast, spreading the details to both the "howlers" and the hysterics. If only mass media was as agile at stomping down these events, slapping a big red shoe on the mania before more time is wasted.
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Joe Pappalardo is the former editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Joe Pappalardo