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What’s behind the clown controversy

By Lenore Skenazy

Let’s face it: Clowns are creepy. In a way, this current craziness has finally brought that fact out into the open, the way the word “frenemy” finally gave us a way to talk about something we all recognized but hadn’t acknowledged. (As did “bad hair day” before that.)

Clowns exist in something called the “uncanny valley,” where dolls and puppets and ventriloquists’ dummies live (or actually don’t live) too: A place between too real to be make-believe, but too make-believe to be real. If you really want to jump out of your skin, pick up your baggage at LaGuardia some time, where a cardboard cutout of a stewardess has a hologram for a head — and it speaks.

Welcome to New York!

But what to make of the clown hysteria sweeping the country, leading to strange sightings, warning letters sent home from school and actual incidents? Last week a clown with a kitchen knife chased a teen off the 6 train at 96th Street. And in Elmhurst, a 16-year-old glanced out his window and saw a clown lurking. Yikes.

And that’s not to mention this weird case — a man in Kentucky shot his gun into the air when he mistook a woman walking her dog for a creepy clown. I’m sure the woman appreciated that all around.

It all brings to mind the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s–90s, when Americans were convinced Satanists were raping and torturing children in day-care centers. Across the country, day-care workers were investigated for crimes, including sacrificing animals in front of the kids and flushing kids down the toilet to secret chambers where they’d be abused.

Under the sway of what we now understand to be manipulative “therapists,” the tots told stories of being flown in hot air balloons or taken on boat trips where babies were tossed overboard. No evidence was ever found for this — no drowned babies, no giraffes sliced and diced at the zoo (which you’d think would be hard to miss). And yet cops, juries, and judges ate this stuff up like bunny entrails.

It all sounds so obviously nutty now that when I mention these things to people, they laugh.

Hardy har har. Except … look what happened to Fran and Dan Keller in Texas. At their 1992 trial, the jury heard that the Kellers had killed a dog and made the kids cut it up and eat it. They also heard that the couple had taken the kids to a cemetery whereupon they shot a passerby, dismembered the body and buried it in a grave they dug.

Testimony also had it that the Kellers had decapitated a baby and thrown its remains in a swimming pool that they made the kids jump into. And in case that all sounded just too plausible, they were also accused of stealing a baby gorilla and chopping off one of its fingers.

There were many more allegations added to this list.

And the Kellers served 21 years in prison.

In Debbie Nathan’s book about that period, “Satan’s Silence,” she nailed a mind-blowing truth: We think we are so sophisticated and scientific today and may even scoff at the idea of “Satan,” but we have no trouble believing in Satan-ists. We simply swapped one basic human fear for another that sounds far more plausible to our modern selves.

Which could explain why we believe that clowns are out to kill our kids.

On the one hand, there’s the rare but terrible truth that some crazy people do shoot kids at school. Combine that with the constant fear that our kids are going to be next, and that it will be by a madman who is nonetheless organized enough to buy a rainbow wig, and you have a mash-up of all our modern parental fears: Stranger danger, randomness, the evil intentions of anyone (especially a male) who likes to work with kids.

The security expert Bruce Schneier coined a term for this: Movie-plot threat. We imagine the threat to our kids is just like one we’ve seen in the movies. It is easier to picture Bozo with a bazooka than a car crash when dad is fiddling with the Garmin, so that’s the threat we focus on. We may even start seeing things.

Looking back, someday we’ll be amazed that schools were sending warning letters home about clown crime. But in the meantime, we’ll keep worrying.

Because that’s what humans seem to do best.

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker, author of the book and blog Free-Range Kids, and a contributor at Reason.com.

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