A chapter in a newly released anthology of historical curiosities by Robert Damon Schneck has reopened one of the most perplexing facets of modern coulrophobia culture and dissected it in a novel and innovative light, contributing significantly to the study of some of the most bizarre and intriguing territory in modern “urban legend.”
Having corresponded here and there over the past several years with Schneck about our shared interest in the subject of reoccurring Phantom Clown scares (using here the term coined by fortean anthropologist Loren Coleman, whose 1980s research is principally responsible for bringing this phenomenon to popular attention), I was particularly excited to dig in to this portion of his new book, Mrs. Wakeman Vs. The Antichrist, And Other Strange But True Tales From American History.
I was not disappointed.
Since Coleman, the legendary legacy of Phantom Clowns has been examined by a number of folklorists and other researchers, including Jan Brunvand, Joseph Citro, Robert Bartholomew, Peter Muise, Greg Jenkins, myself, and most recently filmmaker Josh Zeman (in his new documentary Killer Legends), and yet it has remained curiously obscure, given its relatively long tenure and widespread geographical reoccurrence (by my count, more than 30 regions on at least four continents have coped with these panics from the late 1960s to 2014 -that we know of.) While there has been some level of variation on its structure, Schneck does a good job of first recapping its basic chronology and surprisingly consistent elements, which I will summarize much more briefly and cursorily here, for sake of space:
Sudden, sensational rumors which spread rapidly across a community of a clown (or clowns), typically traveling in a van or similar vehicle, attacking, attempting to abduct, or otherwise harassing children. Generally, local police are quickly inundated with such reports, passed on by terrified parents from accounts that almost always originate with children under the age of 10. While first taken very seriously, investigations persistently fail to locate any such individuals, and eventually it is dismissed as pernicious rumor or mass hysteria.
Speaking generally, Schneck assesses the broader context of sociological factors associated with these types of rumor-panics, particularly prevalent in the 1980s through mid '90s:
“Beyond fears of child abduction, the clowns-in-vans should be considered in relationship to the pedophilia, serial killing, and satanism panic that beset Americans at the end of the twentieth century.”
Having treated the already much-vetted aspects of the phenomenon with admirable conciseness, he then turns to the true meat of his exploration- a historical and psychological connecting-the-dots that ranges from mid 19th century origins of Klansmen and “Night Doctor” legends to the modern media intersection of John Wayne Gacy and the Atlanta Child Murders, ultimately arguing for a major racial component to its origins when viewed against the backdrop of a national culture deeply scarred by a history of wholesale abduction by white faces.
“The history of clowns-in-vans,” Schneck contends boldly, “begins with the demand for labor created by colonizing the New World.”
Beginning this story in the antebellum south, he recounts several means by which southern whites attempted control African abductees and their descendants, both before and after the Civil War, tactics which do seem to bear a certain uncanny resemblance to attributes of the “Killer Clowns” that have occupied the headlines of numerous American cities in recent decades.
From pre-War “Patterollers,” who worked to keep slaves from wandering or gathering at night often impersonating ghosts in white sheets and masks, through the continued evolution of this tradition by the KKK, Schneck follows these kind of savage traditions to the obscure but relevant figure of the “Night Doctors,” - legendary figures based on real horrors of racist abduction and body-theft by the early medical community, who in stories took on mythic and even supernatural qualities over time.
From there, Schneck follows the trail forward to the time frame immediately preceding the appearance of clowns-in-vans, examining both the clown-tinged media sensation of the Gacy killings, and more intriguingly the Atlanta child murders. In these killings, we see a kind of convergence of the rising fear of serial killers, child abduction (“Stranger Danger”, etc) with reasonably deep seated underlying fears of kidnapping and murder of African Americans by racially motivated Caucasian villains- as at the time, the culprit for the growing number of slain black youths was widely believed to be one or more rogue racists of the Klan or similar varieties.
Additionally, it was publicly suggested that the motivation behind the killings could be one of illegal medical experimentation, in a manner that clearly hearkened back to recollections of night doctors.
“If rumors about Atlanta involving Klansmen/night doctors and children were circulating through the black community nationwide,” speculates Schneck, “they could have provided the basis for the clowns.”
I won't go into full detail of the intricacies of his argument, because you really should buy the book, of which this chapter is but one of twelve fascinating subjects from the fringes of U.S. History. However, it presents a fairly convincing theory for how the convergence of events at this juncture of late 70s and early 80s could have synthesized a set of seemingly disparate subjects and lore into something that combined both age old archetypal fears and the news of the day into a new kind of terror, one that might have had particularly striking impact in black communities.
In doing so, Schneck provides a compelling possible answer to one component of the Phantom Clown mythos that has always puzzled me- namely, why it is that in so many American cities, these rumor-panics when traced back to their first emergence in said cities, seem to first crop up in predominantly African American neighborhoods.
It does not, however, address instances of virtually identical rumor-panics prior to Atlanta, which date back at least to 1969, or some of those which occurred later in isolated rural areas of other countries unlikely to have been exposed to these instances in American media. However, his emphasis on the possible underlying fear of medical experimentation as motive for the Phantom Clowns' attempted abductions is especially provocative, in light of the fact that when these scares occurred later in Latin American countries in the mid-1990s, pre-existing cultural fears of organ theft were very explicitly associated with alleged abductions by clowns-in-vans.
So while Schneck's examination does not address or explain every aspect of the Phantom Clown phenomenon -nor, I believe, does it intend to – it does present a very solid and well crafted case for the role of these earlier American boogeymen in influencing this modern folkloric re-occurrence.