Explaining the Urban Legend of the Clown Statue

Creepy Clown
Robin Lynne Gibson / Getty Images

Clowns. Some people love 'em, others are scared silly by them. The urban legend of the clown statue falls into the scary category and has been making the rounds of the Internet for at least a decade. And even though this tale has never been proven real, stories of killer clowns are based in fact.

The Creepy Clown

There are a number of variations on this urban myth. This chain letter version first circulated online around 2006:

Subject: Fw: clown

this creepy or what?

:: a few years ago a mother and a father decided they needed a break, so they wanted to head out for a night on the town. So they called their most trusted babysitter. When the babysitter arrived the two children were already fast asleep in bed. So the babysitter just got to sit around and make sure everything was okay with the children.

Later in the night, the babysitter got bored and so she wanted to watch tv but she couldn't watch it downstairs because they didn't have cable downstairs (the parents didn't want their children watching too much garbage) so she called them and asked them if she could watch cable tv in the parents room. Of course the parents said it was ok, but the babysitter had one final request. She asked if she could cover up the large clown statue in their bedroom with a blanket or cloth, because it made her nervous. The phone line was silent for a moment, and the father (who was talking to the babysitter at the time) said..... take the children and get out of the house..... we'll call the police... we don't have a clown statue..... the children and the babysitter got murdered by the clown. it turned out 2 be that the clown was a killer that escaped from jail.

if you don't repost to 10 peeps within 5 minutes the clown will be standing next 2 your bed at 3:00am with a knife in his hand....

In other versions of this story, the clown is actually a midget who has escaped from a local jail. He hides in the house to avoid capture and poses like a statue to avoid detection. In other versions, the intruder is a murderous sex offender with designs on the babysitter.

Analysis

Like "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs," this urban legend pits a lone teenage babysitter against a male intruder who has surreptitiously entered the house.

It's disturbing on many counts, not least the hint of pedophilia in the revelation that the "midget disguised as a clown" has been spying on or playing with someone's children before his presence in the house is discovered.

It may be that an urban legend like this one is inspired by real-life events in the 1970s, '80s, and later. The best known is John Wayne Gacy, who during the mid-1970s murdered 33 young men and buried their bodies under his Chicago home. The media christened him the "killer clown" because he was known for hosting neighborhood parties at which he dressed up as a clown. Gacy was eventually convicted and put to death for his crimes in 1994, but his legend lives on in documentaries, books, even clown-themed artwork Gacy painted while in prison.

It was probably the Gacy case and the publicity surrounding it that sparked a wave of phantom clown sightings in 1981. The phenomenon, as documented by Loren Coleman in "Mysterious America" (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1983), originated in Boston with unconfirmed reports of men dressed as clowns trying to lure children into vans. Eventually, sightings were reported in 10 other states. In 1990, a West Palm Beach, Florida woman was shot and killed on her doorstep by a clown sporting a bright orange wig.

It's also possible that these clown legends were inspired by popular horror films and books. The 1982 movie "Poltergeist" contained scenes in which a very creepy clown doll terrorizes two young children in their bedroom. Stephen King's "It," published in 1986, spawned a popular TV movie in 1990 and a 2017 Hollywood release. It memorably features a child-killing clown named Pennywise. Demonic clowns also drove the plot of the 1988 cult film classic "Killer Klowns from Outer Space."

Coulrophobia: Fear of Clowns

These stories also can be linked to a documented psychological condition known as coulrophobia. It's more widespread than one might think, especially among children. A study conducted in 2008 by the University of Sheffield in England found that all of the more than 250 children surveyed disliked clown images as part of the decor in hospitals.

Even some of the older children in their mid-teens found the images frightening.

"As adults, we make assumptions about what works for children," one of the authors of the study said. "We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them frightening and unknowable."