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 and too make-believe to be real.
But what to make of the clown hysteria sweeping the country, leading to everything from strange sightings to warning letters sent home from school to actual incidents? That's not to mention the weird case of a man in Kentucky who 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 and '90s, when Americans were convinced that not clowns but Satanists were raping and torturing children in day care centers. Across the country, day care workers were investigated for crimes such as 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 of this was ever found — no drowned babies, no giraffes sliced and diced at the zoo (which you'd think would be hard to miss). Yet cops, juries and judges ate this stuff up like bunny entrails.
It all sounds so obviously nutty now. But 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 passer-by, 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: While we think we are so sophisticated and scientific today and may even scoff at the idea of "Satan," we have no trouble believing in Satanists. 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 mashup of all our modern parental fears — stranger danger, randomness and the evil intentions of anyone, especially a man, who likes to work with kids.
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.
That's what humans seem to do best.