Friday, September 20, 2013

Trickster 2.0 : How a Fool from Northampton Sped Up the Culture of Coulrophobia in A Week

On Friday the 13th, a clown appeared on the streets of the semi-metropolitan town of Northampton, Northamptonshire UK (pop: 212,100).

 He wasn't performing, per se, wasn't juggling or riding a unicycle or advertising for a pizza place or any of the everyday things that a clown might be seen doing out in public at any given time. He wasn't really doing anything. Just standing around. Holding balloons. And later a disheveled teddy bear.

 It started pretty quickly

 From Twitter to Facebook,  the first few hundred discovered that the unnamed but disturbingly familiar clown had his own Spot the Northampton Clown page, where a brief glance at his chosen cover photo made clear what "exclusive" news stories would confirm days later: the costume act bore an intentional resemblance to that most fearsome of all clown-a-phobic icons: Tim Curry as Pennywise. (#NorthamptonClown even used Tim Curry's birth date as his own when starting the page.)

Later that evening, the faux-Pennywise posted another shot of himself, one which with its limply dangling teddy bear, over the next few days would confirm for millions Lon Chaney's words that "there's nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight."

Two more "sighting" photos of went up rapidly over Saturday and Sunday, and as the social media frenzy grew (already running about 100 #northamptonclown tweets per hour by late Saturday [EST]) the Clown became increasingly interactive.

Interestingly, right at the outset area police did issue a warning to beware of  clowns acting suspiciously, after a shady encounter a woman in Kingsley had two youths with clown-like makeup in jeans, activity that sounds more characteristically Juggalo  in nature (yes, yes, we're always stereotyping and casting aspersions on you, feel free to leave an atrociously spelled rant in the comments).

The Northampton reacted quickly to discount any association with the Kingsley incident, along with early speculation about his possible identity ( see the still open question of Has the Mystery of the Northampton Clown Been Solved?  )

For someone who has been covering this "creepy clown" beat for the better part of a decade now, the initial wave of reactions- in all it's bitter, hostile, exaggeratedly outraged, intensely coulrophobic splendor- did not surprise me in the least.

After all, I have seen the clippings of major community panics and police manhunts as "Phantom Clown" syndrome has cropped up in some 25 or more cities around the world over the past few decades, the kind of anger and fear just rumors of a clown going about town (usually in a van) has generated in the past, and that's when there isn't even actually a flesh and blood clown (I think)... in fact,  I have hypothesized in the past that it may actually have been some awareness of widespread media coverage of these "phantom clown" scares from Boston to the west coast in the Spring of 1981 that may have partly inspired Stephen King's It, completed in '85 and made a film five years later.
Rumors of a malevolent clown in a van plagued Kansas City, Boston, Providence, Denver, Pittsburgh and other cities in the Spring and Summer of 1981.

A clear majority of early comments across the electronic mediasphere were of a decidedly "WTF" tone.  "WHY WOULD YOU INTENTIONALLY GIVE ME NIGHTMARES FOR A WEEK?" read one early response that seemed to sum up a key block of sentiment.  Others attributed more sinister motives, and hundreds were quick to shout "Pedophile!" in one form or another over the first couple of days.

A significant proportion were openly violent, like this Facebook comment from young Korey B. :I would probably mug you or seriously hurt you, no hard feelings bro, but I've always wanted to hurt a clown ;D

Well yeah, kid.  A lot of people kind of have that feeling.  You're probably too young to remember a day when toys meant exercise but they used to make inflatable clowns specifically for punching.

But I maybe hadn't realized just how many people really want to punch a clown until it just kept spreading through media in every direction.  Between the full on throwdown between the Northampton Chronicle & Echo and the N. Post & Herald to outcover each other on the local phenom and pick-ups by virtually every major news engine from HuffingtonPost to your local tv news affiliate in a viral publicity swell that in one week would have regurgitated more than 50,000 online news articles and half a million total Google hits.
Given the opportunity for weigh-in on the UK's Creepy Clown on individualized local sites all over the world, the sheer volume of comments and discussion produced in a matter of days is colossal.  It will take me months to sort through all of the threads I copy/pasted en masse this week.

So I'm all like, "ok, world.... Ten years after I originally twisted arms to get questionnaire responses in for my first college survey paper on coulrophobia, NOW, by all means, feel free to share what it is that personally creeps you out about clowns. All At Once."

The Northampton Clown is in no way unaware of these sentiments, and despite his cheeky protestations that he just wants to amuse and doesn't understand the haters, (wink wink, BEEP BEEP) his appearances and "exclusive" interviews with the Chronicle and Telegraph , this clown is well aware of the archetype he's wearing about on dark city streets... and the potentially very real risks involved, judging by the increasingly remote looking locations of some recent photos

Nor is the new character entering the drama mid-week, Northampton's newest (only?) Real-Life Superhero, Boris, The Clown Catcher, who of course also has a Facebook page.

Boris The Clown Catcher has been even more prolific in his photo posts, though not terribly vocal about his motives.  It has also been noted that there may be some resemblance between this new superhero and his greasepainted quarry, particularly in the shoes worn by the Pennywise-impersonator in at least one photo-- a change from his usual clown shoes that he in fact makes a point to mention in a subsequent post that just happened to be right before the Clown Catcher emerged.
Clown Shoes 9-15-13 

Clown Catcher Shoes 9-16-13

For his part the Clown Catcher has sought the elusive Northampton Clown from the parks to the bingo parlors to the Chronicle on the night of his interview, though he claims to have no harmful intent, and at various times has said he would like to simply find the clown for a photo, and alternately invited the clown to join forces with him in keeping the streets safe.

Both #NorthamptonClown and #theClownCatcher have publicly denied they are the same person, but, you know how that goes... until we see them in the same room...

Then something truly odd started to happen.  

By mid-week, the tide of sentiment in the ongoing deluge of comments began to change, with more and more overwhelmingly positive messages flooding in from all over the world as the media sensation reached global proportions.  More enthusiasts started posting how much they loved the idea, inviting the clown to their town, and increasingly chastising those commenters still leaving angry or threatening messages either on his page or the sprawling thicket of online stories.

The timing has been auspicious, and a seemingly re-encouraged Northampton Clown, having laid out his more-or-less simplistic alleged motive of Just Wanting To Amuse People Impersonating A Fictional Clown Who Murders Children, having talked with the press and moved on from it with an ambiguous promise to continue his appearances unannounced and sporadically "for as long as people are interested in it."

The question now, I suppose, is how long will that be... and if anything this new Trickster 2.0 can do now will be capable of re-igniting the kind of media interest garnered in unexpectedly massive debut week? 

That, and what it now means for the already near fever-pitched popular culture web growing around the ancient, ever shape-shifting archetype of The Fool, now that so very many of us have now cleaned out our closets and put in our two cents on what it means to be "a clown in the moonlight" in present day western civilization... and what it will mean the next time someone within the range of this viral explosion sees the next, real story of "clown" crime... ?

Northampton Chronicle's Round-up of photos, e-cards, memes etc dedicated to Pennywise the The Northampton Clown:

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