A teenager dressed as a clown and wielding a plastic knife terrorized passers-by in southwest France on October 10, in what he claimed was "just a joke."
Threatening clowns were subsequently sighted in Perpignan, Guingamp, and Besançon, with videos of their pranks ending up on YouTube. But the hijinks did not end there. Last week, four teenage clowns were arrested in a high school parking lot in Agde, carrying pistols, knives, and baseball bats. And, on Saturday, in the same area, another clown was given a 12-month sentence — with nine months suspended — for attacking a woman with a metal rod.
With such incidents widespread in advance of Halloween, the mayor of Vendargues, a small town near Montpellier, took the precaution of banning clown costumes in public spaces from October 31 to November 1. A representative from his office told French newspaper Le Figaro, "We want to protect children by forbidding badly-intentioned clowns from mingling with people."
Escalating the evil clown fever, groups of "clown hunters" have mobilized over social media to lead vigilante missions against people dressed as clowns. The police, wary of both the clowns and their hunters, have reported daily arrests of both groups throughout France.
Reacting to the trend, the French minister of the interior convened a special meeting with the police and the gendarmerie to figure out how to best tackle these incidents. On Monday, police called for people to report anyone suspected of being an evil clown or a clown hunter.
'When you see a clown outside of the context of a party, it makes you uneasy, because you're wondering who is hiding under the costume.'
Speaking to VICE News, Aurore Van de Winkel, a doctor in information and communication science and a researcher in urban legends, highlighted the similarity between current events and what happened in Wisconsin in June 2014 when two teens, inspired by the Slender Man legend, stabbed one of their friends to death.
"Just like the clowns, what started off as a prank became a brutal reality," Van de Winkel said.
Van de Winkel expounded on the image of the clown in the popular imagination: "The sadistic clown character is particularly interesting because he is a dual [character]. He is ridiculous, made-up, and strange-looking with odd shoes that prevent him from moving around normally. He hides a dark, sadistic, cruel soul. When you see a clown outside of the context of a party, it makes you uneasy, because you're wondering who is hiding under the costume. We're all scared to be singled out by him, because you know he's going to put you in grotesque and ridiculous situations."
The French police have reacted by setting up a hotline and encouraging people to rely on social media to alert one another of the real dangers presented by these fearsome clowns. They have also publicly reiterated that "carrying a weapon in public is an offense punishable by a prison sentence."
Speaking to VICE News, Gérard Lopez, a French forensic psychiatrist who also teaches at the institute of criminology in Assas, shed light on the spread of the phenomenon. According to Lopez, those responding to images of clowns on social media share an identical profile to those people influenced by jihadists: "They are people who are inhibited, who suffer from avoidant personality syndrome, people who seek refuge in social media and who create characters to give themselves meaning."
VICE News' Virgile Dall'Armellina contributed reporting.
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