Clowns, Kids & Satan

And what is the Free-Range take on clowns, you ask?


Not yuk-yuk, like funny. Yuck like why would anyone ever find a white-painted face with distorted features amusing, rather than horrifying?

But of course the bigger question now is what is going on with our culture’s clown craziness. Clowns are popping up everywhere, leading to strange sightings,  warning inhiyzfnbk
letters sent home from school
 and actual arrests. 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.

To me, it all brings to mind the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s-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 like sacrificing animals in front of the kids and making them drink the blood, engaging in group orgies, 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 found for this — no drowned babies, no giraffes slaughtered at the zoo (which you’d think would be hard to miss). And yet, cops, juries and judges ate them up like bunny entrails.

It all sounds so obviously nutty now that when I mention these things to people, they laugh. One friend said, “If they were having naked orgies with all the kids at daycare, how come everyone ended up in the right clothes again when their parents picked them up? That doesn’t even work when kids take off their socks.”

Hardy har har. Except…look what happened to Fran and Dan Keller in Texas. At their 1992 trial, wrote The Guardian, the jury heard stories that:

Dan Keller killed his dog and made children cut it up and eat it, “baptised” kids with blood and disemboweled pets, forcing children to drink the blood.

The Kellers were also said to have decapitated and chopped up a baby, put the remains in a swimming pool and made the children jump in. In one account, the Kellers were said to have stolen a baby gorilla from a park and Frances cut off one of its fingers.

The pair, who apparently liked to wear robes, were said to have dug graves in a cemetery to hide dead animals and a passer-by who was shot and carved up with a chain saw.

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: Ritual Abuse and The Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt,” she nailed a mindblowing 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 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, and do shoot audiences — well, one audience, once — at movie theaters. The headlines create and reinforce our fear that violence is everywhere, that our kids are going to be next, and that it will be by a madman who is nonetheless well-functioning enough to buy a rainbow wig and giant shoes. Add to that our general suspicion of any male who chooses to work with kids for a living and what’s left is a mash-up of all our modern parental fears: Predators, randomness, kids being killed right and left.

The security  expert Bruce Schneier coined a term for this: Movie plot threat. We imagine the threat to our kids is just like the one we’d see, or have seen, in the movies. It’s easier to picture Bozo with a bazooka than a car crash when mom or dad is confused by their GPS (which in our car seems to be about a third of the time), so that’s the threat we focus on…to the point where we start exaggerating unlikely outcomes, or even seeing things.

Looking back, we’ll be amazed that schools were sending warning letters home about clowns in the woods. But in the meantime, we’ll keep worrying, because that’s what humans seem to do best.


Hi! I'm a grown male who has chosen to work with kids for some reason.

Hi! I’m a grown male who has chosen to work with kids for some reason.


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41 Responses to Clowns, Kids & Satan

  1. Juluho October 7, 2016 at 11:59 am #

    My son is totally freaking out about this!
    I just listened to a podcast (I think it was Stuff You Should Know) about the Satan ring craziness and how it was all completely made up. So, I also used that story as a parallel when explaining to him about mass hysteria.
    I guess worrying about Ebola and Zika and technology just got boring so now we’ve created a narrative right out of a Stephen King book!

  2. Lyndsay October 7, 2016 at 12:10 pm #

    Our district sent an email about “Clown Concerns” yesterday. My second grader hasn’t noticed and hasn’t asked. She is scared of enough things that actually are threats, that I have no intention of talking to her about people walking down the street dressed as clowns. It reminds me of the persistent rumors of a one-armed murderer living in the laughably thin woods behind my elementary school. There’s no reason to believe it’s real, but if you keep talking about it we will all be freaked out.

  3. Reziac October 7, 2016 at 12:19 pm #

    And I’m like… since when are clowns scary? they’re part of the parade, the rodeo, and the circus. Why can’t we have a little more of those in our everyday lives? Cheers for clowns!

  4. Richard October 7, 2016 at 12:23 pm #

    I would say, rather, “people dressed as clowns.” I know some folk who are professional clowns and they’re, by and large, some of the sweetest people you could possibly imagine.

    If a bunch of random guys were putting on priest collars and robes and scaring people I doubt that we’d be seeing headlines about “scary priests harassing us,” – same with other uniformed professions from doctors to fire fighters – so why do we treat random guys dressing as clowns any differently?

  5. Jess October 7, 2016 at 12:31 pm #

    As an aside, can we stop using scary clown pictures for the articles that day there’s nothing to worry about? Clowns are not my phobia, but the”clowns are going to eat me” pics don’t really serve to allay fears.

  6. Marty October 7, 2016 at 12:34 pm #

    Thank you for covering this topic. Fear is an excellent way in which to ultimately manage people. The only problem is that innocent people get swept up in the accusations and community cohesiveness suffers greatly during times of hysteria. I remember this trial from the 80s. One mother and years and years of an expensive lawsuit surely ruined lives. Tragic.

  7. CR Moewes October 7, 2016 at 12:37 pm #

    We got this email from school this weel

    “No clown threat has been substantiated thus far. Our School Resource Officer with the Plymouth Police Department does not believe these are credible threats, but each threat will be investigated.

    Please report any suspicious activities, including clowns, to your local police department. Students can report these activities to district staff and administrators. Students are also encouraged not to fuel these rumors via social media, and not to dress up like clowns for school. ”

    There is no clown threat

  8. Antje October 7, 2016 at 12:45 pm #

    Yesterday in an email from the school district titled “Clown-related hoaxes” I found these statements:
    – “this is a social media-related hoax”
    – “should any of your children see a clown, please encourage them to walk/run away”
    – “refrain from dressing up like clowns this year for Halloween”
    This bothers me on so many levels. Bur chiefly this: They call it a hoax twice – basically saying it’s not real – but yet proceed to tell parents to instill panic and fear in their kids about this danger they say isn’t real. Fear-mongering at its best
    Basically they’re either lying (calling it a hoax), fearmongering, or using words they don’t understand (hoax) – any of which I would find unacceptable in communication from a school district.
    And yes, I emailed them back to point this out and that this effectively perpetuates the hoax, giving more power to it…

  9. DrTorch October 7, 2016 at 12:48 pm #

    Never occurred to me as a kid that clowns could be scary.

    Frankly, I find this whole hysteria…hysterical. Prov 28:1.

    That schools are getting anxiously involved only serves to prove that those administrators are too fragile to do their jobs.

  10. Gary October 7, 2016 at 1:03 pm #

    Wanna know how and when this is all gonna stop?

    When the first one of these idiots gets clipped.

  11. That mum October 7, 2016 at 1:04 pm #

    I began my career in early childhood just on the heels of the mcMartin preschool thing in the late 80s it effected us in Canada too and made us paranoid about accusations. Especially the (rare) men in the field.

    This stuff just makes me think of the Xfiles now though.

  12. K October 7, 2016 at 1:14 pm #

    Apparently some school districts in my county sent out warning letters about the “threat.” They said they did not believe it to be credible. But the first I heard of these letters was complaints online from moms in my district, upset that our district had not sent out a letter about the threat.

    How do people take these things seriously?

  13. Michael Fandal October 7, 2016 at 1:26 pm #

    When criminals are arrested for pretending to be a police officer the charge is impersonating a police
    Officer. A clown mask or painted face with clown nose does NOT make someone a clown. Though it
    Is not unlawful to parade around or skulk around in
    Clown garb. They are IMPERSONATING a clown.
    A genuine clown exudes love and promotes
    Mirth. Lazy journalists take a short cut at the expense
    Of clowns and kids.

  14. Kimberly October 7, 2016 at 1:36 pm #

    Not everyone is falling for it. The response to threats against schools here among my friends – Look for the the class that was having a test, presentation, or big project due that day – you will probably find the person behind that version of the hoax in that pool of kids.

    No-one I know is actually worried about killer clowns. They are ticked off someone is trying to scare their kids. THankfully most of the kids in my family and friends don’t watch live TV, their parents stream music from their phones in the car, and are keeping up with family/friends evacuation because of Matthew via social media/texts so exposure to the media hysteria has been minimal.

  15. Gary October 7, 2016 at 1:44 pm #

    “…A clown mask or painted face with clown nose does NOT make someone a clown. Though it
    Is not unlawful to parade around or skulk around in
    Clown garb…”

    Actually, depending on where you live it very well might be.

    Maryland for example still has a law on the books from it’s anti-Klan legislation that makes it illegal to wear a mask, paint your face, or cover your features unless it is Halloween.

  16. M. October 7, 2016 at 1:57 pm #

    It’s all sort of amusing until some idiot shoots a kid trying to freak people out by dressing like a clown…

  17. lollipoplover October 7, 2016 at 2:07 pm #

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

    We have received district notifications about clown threats and promises to beef up security around schools. Our elementary school made a “no clown costumes” rule for the Halloween parade. This is all they talk about at recess. The clowns. It’s their modern day boogeyman.

    In our area (Philly), there have been online pranks and hoaxes of clown threats done by CHILDREN aged 12, 13, and 14 on social media. They were arrested for terroristic threats. FEAR THE CHILDREN NOT THE CLOWNS!

    I find it amazing that young teenagers can fuel such widespread panic even more than ISIS.

  18. En Passant October 7, 2016 at 2:18 pm #

    Lenore wrote:

    In Debbie Nathan’s book about that period, “Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and The Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt,” she nailed a mindblowing 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 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.

    I generally agree.

    I would add that moral panics, popular delusions and the madness of crowds, are common events in history. They tend to feed and flourish upon the best available means to communicate them at the time.

    Literal word of mouth (one person tells another the story face to face) has fed moral panics, as have letters and mail, newspapers, telegraph, telephone, radio and TV broadcasting, and now the intarwebz, facebook and twitter.

    Generally speaking, I’ll make a semi-informed conjecture, based upon only one element of the many that make mass panics: the faster and more widespread the means of communication, the faster the panic spreads and reaches a zenith, then the faster it subsides.

    Late midieval crusades lasted generations. In the early 1700s, when communication was slightly faster, but still no faster than the speed people could travel (ie: letters and mail at best), the South Sea Bubble lasted more than a decade. In the 1840s, when travel and communication were faster, the British Railway Mania was shorter lived. More recent panics have had even shorter lives.

    Some panics have done immense harm over even short periods of time, but their length does seem to be related to the ease and speed of communication.

    With today’s near instant communications, this clown panic spread rapidly to reach a fever pitch. I expect it will subside rapidly as well. It may be completely over (except for a few hardcore “believers”) after the November elections.

    How much harm it does is another question. But I think it will not last long as a widespread panic.

  19. K2 October 7, 2016 at 2:30 pm #

    I doubt the current sightings are all “professional” clowns. I warned my kids about them.

  20. marie October 7, 2016 at 2:40 pm #

    Haunted houses are in full swing here. Parents drop off carloads of kids who pay money to get scared witless. A good haunted house will probably capitalize on the clown scare and have clowns in the cast. Kids will tell stories about how they were so scared they wet their pants…and then head off to the next haunted house.

    In general, kids like to be frightened. The communal scare gives them a chance to experience a moment of terror and the relief of “escaping” the fear. Pretending that clowns are a special kind of scary from which children cannot recover is SO disrespectful of the ability of kids to get over it.

    Thanks, Lenore. I knew you would make sense of it. 🙂

  21. CrazyCatLady October 7, 2016 at 2:45 pm #

    I got a message from my older two kid’s school about “clown threats.” Basically it told us to tell our kids to use safe walking routes home. Turns out it was kids on social media talking about the clowns that got expanded into stuff that was all joking (“It would be funny to see a clown…”, “I will beat up any clown I see” sort of stuff.) By the end of the day, the police said there were no actually threats.

    However, a very stupid boy an hour south of me, DID make some threats. He set up a fake account with a clown as the photo, and then said he would shoot up the school. The silly boy apparently never had been in trouble before….but he is in plenty now. And his sad tale shows why social media accounts have age limits…he was under. But…the school did NOT shut down, and he was taken into custody part way through the day. I hope his family can afford a decent lawyer, as I understand kids do stupid things sometimes and this sounds like one of those stupid things…..

  22. sexhysteria October 7, 2016 at 3:39 pm #

    How convenient to draw the public’s attention away from corrupt government employees and the corrupt mass media, leading the public around by their noses. What a pathetic indictment of modern humanity.

  23. Backroads October 7, 2016 at 4:01 pm #

    Already had a kid in our area arrested for clown behavior.

    I’m so sick of it.

  24. James Pollock October 7, 2016 at 4:17 pm #

    But the threat is real.

    One clown keeps encouraging children to eat chicken “Nuggets”, made from no discernable part of a chicken. He offers them a toy if they’ll do it.

  25. James Pollock October 7, 2016 at 4:23 pm #

    “Never occurred to me as a kid that clowns could be scary.”

    Well, the Joker has been the Joker for more than 5 decades. The real turning point, however, was probably Pennywise the Clown in Stephen King’s “It”.

  26. Rebekah October 7, 2016 at 7:18 pm #

    I did see on the news, though, that a man dressed partially as a clown started yanking a toddler away from her mom. I’m sure that it was part of this whole extended Halloween prank but it’s not funny even if he wasn’t really intending to kidnap the girl.

    I mean, this clown thing isn’t something that people just imagined up because they were in a mood. Nor was it part of some evil secret society conspiracy. Somebody thought it would be funny to scare people while dressed as clowns. And other people agreed to varying degrees and at some point it went viral. It’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy because apparently some people are dumb enough to try to actually carry out the prank.

  27. Alanna October 7, 2016 at 8:08 pm #

    Here in Agawam someone video taped a clown in front of a grocery store. The clown ran after the car that the photographer was in. Am I the only one who thinks the clown did nothing wrong? It is not illegal to wear a clown suit. Nor is it illegal to run after a car. I figure the guy ran after the car because he expected a tip from the photographer. In many parts of the world it is common to tip when taking a photograph of someone dressed as a clown, batman, superman or in the traditional dress of the local population.

    Someone called the police and reported this clown. This wastes their time because they must respond. I would much prefer that they spend their time catching real crooks than responding to calls about clowns. They still haven’t found Lisa Zeigert’s killer, and it has been over twenty years!

    According to a news report I heard, this clown had not gotten permission from the grocery store to stand out in front, but his presence there was part of publicity for a Halloween event that is supposed to take place on the Big E fairgrounds in nearby West Springfield.

  28. Nicole October 8, 2016 at 10:56 am #

    My 4th grader came home from practice sobbing because a girl on her team was talking about it. That girl had heard about it on the news. I tried to explain nothing has happened. But the damage was done. So upset! I wish I knew how to undo what was done.

  29. Diane October 8, 2016 at 7:10 pm #

    As uncomfortable as I have always been with clowns, I think the only remedy to this ridiculous panic is to normalize clownery again. Instead of telling people to refrain from dressin up as clowns, everyone should dress up as clowns to normalize the images.

  30. James Pollock October 8, 2016 at 8:32 pm #

    I think the scary-clown fad will die down after the election, with slightly less than one-half of the voting population convinced that the scary clown won, and slightly more than one-half of the voting population convinced that the scary clown was defeated.

  31. SanityAnyone? October 8, 2016 at 11:09 pm #

    Unfortunately, there is a new and real fad afoot and it’s not our imagination. In many neighborhoods, there are people out specifically intending to frighten both adults and children. It’s really cruel and effective. I don’t think this is a case of societal panicing, though many parents plan to alter Halloween activities.

    It happened in my own area this week where someone in a horrible clown mask came from a back yard and lunged at a ten year old girl while rattling heavy chains at her. She is terrified now. I think any child or adult would feel legitimately threatened especially if this happened at home. This person was not alone and they have been seen in small gangs. Further, some of the adults or teens perpetrating this are likely to face a violent response, which could create tragic endings to sad pranks.

  32. Babs October 9, 2016 at 7:01 am #

    Unfortunately, the clown “threat” is just that — a threat. Last year or the year before, all the kids were talking about “Slenderman,” another scary hoax perpetrated by social media. While the clown sightings themselves have not resulted in anyone being killed or injured, there are some who are jumping on this bandwagon are scaring the daylights out of people. One of my Facebook friends got spooked last night when a person dressed as a clown came out of nowhere (she lives in a rural area) and jumped in front of her car, and she had to swerve to avoid hitting him, and he kept trying to get in front of her car. It’s more of a psychological messing around. And there was another incident a week ago where a young woman driving was spooked by a car with a couple of people dressed in clown masks. All these incidents seem to happen late at night, usually in more rural or suburban areas. It’s getting to the point where anyone who dares to wear a clown costume in innocence (because they work as a clown or will dress up as one for Halloween) is going to be a target for violence.

  33. C. S. P. Schofield October 9, 2016 at 9:40 am #

    Think the clown hysteria has something to do with the clown in the White House and the two clowns running to replace hm?

    Regarding the Satanic Abuse hysteria, I have long thouht that the Prosecuting Attourneys responsible for taking those cases to trial should be disbarred.

    Well, actually, I think they should be impaled in a nice public place as object lessons, but I’d settle for disbarred.

  34. James Pollock October 9, 2016 at 5:06 pm #

    “Unfortunately, the clown “threat” is just that — a threat.”

    It isn’t a threat until someone is actually harmed by one of these clowns. Having someone startle you and having someone actually try to harm you are not the same thing.

  35. SteveS October 9, 2016 at 6:05 pm #

    I think this fad will go away, eventually, but this is just part of the somewhat larger fad of pranks that involve trying to scare people and recording them. The pranks can be fairly elaborate and realistic. Apparently, some people don’t enjoy being randomly scared.

  36. theresa October 10, 2016 at 11:33 am #

    I think it high time that when they get a creepy clowns calls to tell everyone it just a tall tale and 911 is for real emergencies.

  37. Derek W Logue of October 10, 2016 at 5:01 pm #

    I’ll just leave this one here for all you clown haters out there…

  38. Dave October 10, 2016 at 8:11 pm #

    My favorite is moms texting while driving with their kids in the minivan. It’s deadly, and I see this daily.

  39. JJ October 11, 2016 at 1:01 pm #

    My kids caught the hysteria and my husband and I are admittedly amused at how our normally skeptical teenagers are getting swept up in it. Did you know that my son knows a guy who knows a kid who knows a guy whose 12-year old brother was almost kidnapped by a creepy clown? My gosh I can barely keep a straight face! We asked “how do you know if the clown is creepy? What if he’s just there to juggle or honk his horn?”

    What’s more disturbing is that my son knows kids who know kids who go clown hunting. That may or may not be true (probably not) but I do worry that someone will be hurt/go to jail.

  40. James Pollock October 11, 2016 at 3:49 pm #

    “What’s more disturbing is that my son knows kids who know kids who go clown hunting.”

    What’s the bag limit? I assume it’s as many as you can fit in the bag, meaning dozens…

  41. John B. October 12, 2016 at 1:54 am #

    I don’t understand, if the Kellers were innocent of all those crazy things which I assume they were. Goodness gracious, speaking of the devil, even Satan himself isn’t that evil! So how in the world could they prove the Kellers actually disemboweled dogs and made the children drink the blood? How in the world did they prove the Kellers stole a baby gorilla from a park and cut one of its fingers off? All that seems pretty far fetched to me. Assuming in our Democracy that a person is innocent until proven guilty, it would seem that all of those bizarre accusations would be difficult to prove. OR, maybe because children were in the narrative, the Kellers were automatically guilty until proven innocent? Well, a little off the clown topic but I had to pose the question.