What Creepy Clowns Tell Us About Social Anxiety

The creepy clown craze caught me off guard. I suppose my earliest exposure to clowns came through the children’s television show Captain Kangaroo, hosted by Bob Keeshan. He himself had played Clarabelle the Clown on the Howdy Doody television program, which was a little before my time. He put on clown makeup and performed as a clown on his own show and had other famous clowns. The only other place kids in my generation saw clowns was at the circus or perhaps, in more upscale neighborhoods, at a birthday party. They were never frightening. Perhaps some children always found them creepy and none of us knew about it but perhaps the rise of the phenomenon of creepy clowns tells us something about our anxious age?

One has the sense that we do live in an anxious time. To be sure there have been others. The Great Depression (and Dust Bowl) brought about a great degree of real suffering, poverty, and even famine. The Cold War had moments of intense anxiety, e.g., the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 but it passed with the conclusion of the crisis. In the mid-1970s President Carter diagnosed the national psyche as being afflicted with “malaise” but with election of Ronald Reagan and the release of the American hostages held by Iran, in the American Embassy, it was “morning in America” again. After all, in the first half of the 20th century the USA had endured World War I, the Great Depression (and the Dust Bowl), World War II, and the Korean War. In that period the country had lost an enormous number of people and suffered greatly. Nevertheless, the 1950s and 60s had mostly been times of prosperity and optimism.

There was a turn, a shift in the national mood in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We can see it in the films after the close of the Hays Office, which had regulated films for sex and violence. As the Baby Boomers took the reins of Hollywood in the wake of the assassination of JFK (1963), RFK (1968), and MLK (1968) in the wake of the anti-Vietnam War riots, they made darker, more introspective films. “Can Do” seemed to be replaced by “Look What We’ve Done.” The “Summer of Love” in 1967 became the riot at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968.

A sense of anxiety has become more pervasive in the 2000s with wide-spread access to the internet. The media have long known that the way to get us to tune in (or stay tuned in) is to frighten us. When I was reading news on the radio the rule was “if it bleeds, it leads.” Our job was not to inform as much as to keep you tuned in so that we could report the highest possible ratings to advertisers. Nothing has changed. Now, however, our news media no longer simply broadcasts into the air (or on cable) to be picked up or not. Now, of course, they were with us 24/7 on our blinking screens. Every Fox News story is “breaking news.” The sense of anxiety seems only to have intensified after 9/11. Our vague sense of dis-ease is underpinned by the reality that the West remains in a long-war against Islamist terrorism which began 17 years ago. The war is no longer only “over there” (Afghanistan and Iraq). It is “over here.” We see it when Islamists blow up themselves and others or drive panel vans into crowds. Then, of course, there is the phenomenon of mass shootings both Islamists and the mentally unstable. The “news” media capitalizes on these and other threats to keep us all in a constant state of tension.

So it is interesting but not surprising that the first result of a Google search for “late-modern anxiety,” brings up the title of a 2017 book, Late Modern Subjectivity and Its Discontents: Anxiety, Depression, and Alzheimer’s Disease (Routledge). The authors argue that these are the maladies of our age. The first two are manifestly sicknesses of the soul which help explain how Clarabell the Clown and the other benign entertainers of the early 1960s became mass murderers in the disgusting slasher films of the 1980s and later.

In our age of anxiety and discontent nothing may be allowed to remain innocent or pure. Everything must be corrupted to create even more anxiety, to drive ever more eyeballs to a website, to garner clicks, or to increase the ratings. In reality, despite the carnage in the streets of some neighborhoods in Chicago, crime is down markedly. If we look at the most inclusive and most realistic measure of unemployment, the Bureau of Labor Statistics U6 it is lower today than it has been since 2001. Life spans are increasing because of improved medical care. There are many reasons for optimism but still, the creepy clown seems to be an apt symbol of the age.

Whence the anxiety and its weird symptom, the creepy clown? I submit the culprit is the rise of subjectivism and Narcissism in the 1970s and 80s. With the end of the Cold War, in the midst of unparalleled prosperity in world history, Americans turned inward to examine the late-modern soul. What we found was emptiness and loneliness. The early 20th century marked the dominance of the higher-critical approach to Scripture. The Universities were bastions of unbelief. It took a while to filter down to the rest of the people but after World War II, with the G. I. Bill and the expansion of the educational state in the 1970s (following the establishment of the Department of Education), the skeptics and cynics in the universities got their hands on the minds of a greater proportion of the American population. Perhaps the very first thing I learned in university in 1979 is that the “American Dream” was a myth, that things were terrible, and that there was no (earthly) hope for the future. The second thing I learned is that the Christian faith was false and there is no hope of heaven. Perhaps creepy clowns are the gargoyles and demons of a secularist, post-Christian age?

My fellow undergraduates and I laughed at impoverished, bedraggled liberal arts grad students, perpetual students, with fingernails yellowed by cigarette smoke, hollow eyes, and bitter souls. We hoped that we did not end up like them. The only thing we knew is that we had to finish college in order to have any sort of a decent life, or so were told by the educational establishment. The recessions, high inflation, and interest rates of the 70s and early 80s seemed to reinforce the message of the educrats: borrow money, go to college, or face a bleak life working low-wage, “dead end” jobs.

The truth is that clowns are just people in grease paint. They are not frightening or at least they need not be. That they have become symbols of evil tells us more about ourselves than it does about clowns. Anxiety and depression are intimately related. Anxiety is worry that God is not or at least that he is not in charge, that we are on our own. Depression is the next stop on that train. Who would not become depressed at such a prospect? Humans do adapt to circumstances. Raise a tax and free people will adjust. Remove hope of heaven and make this life meaningless and people adapt by becoming depressed. It is the rational thing to do.

Of course the premise of anxiety and depression, that God is not or that as one of my undergraduate professors put, “in the 18th century God went to the corner for a beer and he never came back,” is false. God is where he has always been. He is in his heaven just as he was when Job challenged in (see Job ch. 38). He is where he was during the Islamist attacks on Christian pilgrims and retaliatory crusades in the Middle Ages. He remains where he was during what we might call the Great Slaughter of totalitarianism of the 20th century, where Fascists and Communists (Marxists) murdered between 85 and 120 million people.

Jesus’ tomb is still empty. He is still the Mediator at the right hand of the Father. Despite the conclusions of the critics, the Scriptures are still true. The Spirit is still calling his elect through the preaching of the gospel. The world, the flesh, and the devil may corrupt clowns but that is just another lie, another version of “has God really said?” Yes, God has said. He has promised condemnation to lawbreakers but he has also promised righteousness, peace with God, and eternal life to all those who put their trust in Jesus the Savior. He lives. He hears believing prayers and he answers them. There is hope because Christ lives. We have in the gospels reliable, credible witnesses to that reality. We also know the Scriptures to be true by the witness of the Holy Spirit.

Hopelessness is not a virtue and clowns are not creepy unless we make them so. We need not be Pollyannas but neither need we become existentialists or nihilists. Realism accounts for all the evidence. The resurrection of Jesus is evidence. We are not entitled to filter it out of the picture simply beecause it is not fashionable.

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  1. Dr. Clark, thank you for making Eternal distinctions. We all have the reality of the historical evidence – the empty tomb – and the doxologies. What the Spirit uncovers (Heb. 4:12-13) is unbelief and the hardening heart. And so the world, having rejected The Living and Active God, gets the depravity of the inner god, the darkness of the evil clown. Seeing the condition of my own unbelief helps me depend on The God to love my ‘anxious’ neighbors and my ‘anxious’ biological relatives. The ’empty tomb’ helps me because He causes me to believe. Amazing Grace, how can it BE?

  2. Dr. Clark, a similar thought but in a different way crossed my mind too. I’m many ways the glorification of animals over humans has also reared its head. Many films have sought to make man look evil while animals and the activist are heroic. Or animals get personified in innocent ways. And thus another example of twisted things that seems to happen is that you get the issue of people believing their animals will be in heaven etc. This is not to say inhumane animal treatment is okay but rather that we have often in a weird way lowered humanity to the level of animals.

    • Without Christ…without hope and without God in the world we are nothing. Then there is no point to our existence higher than that of an animal that lacks the image of God, has no claims to love and protection in the promises of God, and fearfully looks ahead only to death. Clowns become sinister, unborn infants may be disposed of as inconveniences that have no more rights than unwanted pets, and disgruntled teenagers vent their frustrations through a killing spree. Eph. 2: 12

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