In August of 1984 on the island of Hainan in southern China, a fortune teller predicted “1985 would be a bad year and that all of the people would suffer from many disasters,” according to a report later published by the Guangzhou Brain Hospital, which I found while researching my book, The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World's Strangest Syndromes
(now in paperback).
Soon after that, rumors began circulating that a “fox ghost,” sometimes disguised as an old woman, was roaming the land, collecting penises in baskets she carried on her shoulder pole. Two young men approached her to see what was in her baskets. When then looked, they saw that they were filled with penises. They died instantly of fright, according to the story.
Panic began making its way around the island. The ghost struck at night, when villagers were sleeping. A chill would creep into the room, and a victim would feel his penis shrinking inward. He would grab it and run outside for help.
In the case of one 28-year-old office worker, he was home at night when he heard a gong being beaten and the terrifying noises from people in a nearby neighborhood. Then he suddenly became anxious and felt like his penis was shrinking. He shouted for help. Several men in the neighborhood rushed into his home and tried to rescue him by forcefully pulling his penis and making loud sounds to chase away the evil ghost affecting him. Victims were beaten with sandals and slippers while the middle finger of their left hand was squeezed, so the ghost could exit the body there.
The epidemic of what is known as “koro” engulfed the island, and it’s one of many such incidents that I investigated in The Geography of Madness
. When the panic hit a village, it would last three to four days. As soon as residents heard about a case in a neighboring village, it would subside, as the ghost had clearly moved on. By the end, between 2,000 and 5,000 people had been affected. Researchers noted that, “Numerous men suffered injuries to their penises as a result of ‘rescuing’ actions.” Iron pins were sometimes inserted through the nipples of women to prevent retraction, which caused infections.
It’s hard to imagine such an epidemic sweeping through our own neighborhood, and the chances of it are, thankfully, low. But as I found, we have our own versions, in which the beliefs, syndromes of one suddenly spread to the masses. In 2011 in Le Roy, New York, for example, 18 girls were struck with a bizarre twitching condition which was quickly determined to be a “mass psychogenic illness.” In Springfield, Minnesota, in 2014, 30 students who were practicing for a musical became suddenly ill and had to be hospitalized for suspected carbon monoxide poisoning. Yet no teachers were affected and their blood tests were negative: another mass psychogenic illness. In a similar (less medical) vein, thousands of people became convinced last year that Hillary Clinton was running a pedophile ring from a Washington Pizza restaurant. And again in 2016, the country was gripped with a terror of creepy clowns prowling the neighborhoods, trying to lure children into the woods. (At my daughters’ school, students were not allowed to discuss it because some children were so afraid.)
To a village dweller on Hainan, the Great American Clown Panic of 2016 would certainly seem strange, while the 1985 ghost panic of Hainan would make a certain amount of sense. This was largely because they had heard the stories about genital-stealing ghosts before. Older residents “vividly remembered previous epidemics in 1948, 1955, 1966 and 1974” that had also affected hundreds of people. Our culture is the ecosystem of narratives that we belong to. One study found that the difference between victims and non-victims was 100 percent of victims had prior knowledge of the danger of the fox ghost, and 100 percent of them had a fear of death due to genital retractions. Culture-bound syndromes and mass panics emerge from the stories that we believe could be true.
Certainly many of us felt like there were “evil winds” blowing through America in 2016.
For the same reason, the clown panic makes a certain kind of sense to us: we have heard this story before. “The story always sounds real,” says Robert Bartholomew, author of Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior
and many other books on the topic. “A pedophile or sadist trying to lure people into the woods. Yet when you look into it, these stories go back for centuries. Folklorists have a name for them: bad clown narratives, or killer clown, phantom clown, stalking clown. For me, phantom clowns are the bogeyman in another guise. They are living folklore. They are a modern myth in the making.”
Clowns, in our culture, have a long and complicated history. According to Bartholomew they were viewed positively until the late 1800s, when they began to appear in operas as murderers. Around the Great Depression in 1930, traveling circuses hit hard times, so they spun off into smaller sideshow carnivals. These were called “Dark Carnivals” (like the Ray Bradbury
novel of the same name) and there clowns were dark, creepy, and scary.
But in the 1950s the kid-friendly clown returned on the Howdy Doody
show with Clarabell the Clown and in the 1960s with Bozo the Clown on Bozo’s Circus
. But in the 1970s, a shadow was cast when it emerged that the mass murderer John Wayne Gacy had often performed as “Pogo the Clown.”
After that, the clown hysteria began. In Boston and Bakersfield, California, in the early 1980s, there were reports of clowns outside a school trying to lure kids into a van. Schools closed, but no clowns were found. Soon Stephen King’s It
was published, along with countless TV shows and films featuring killer clowns. (Bartholomew has recorded 186 such plots). Even an episode of Little House on the Prairie
featured a rapist in a clown mask.
“The clown scare, for me, is part of the stranger danger moral panic that started in the 1980s,” says Bartholomew. This included the satanic cult panics/recovered memory panics that made headlines across the country (see Richard Beck’s We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s
). These seem to have been caused by anxiety about more women moving into the workplace, and children being cared for by strangers.
But why clowns now? After all, 2016 was a banner year for panics in America. Aside from the Pizzagate/pedophile panic, there were several incidents in airports and malls when panic ensued after loud noises were heard. And Bartholomew says the fear of immigrants, refugees, and Muslims shows the hallmarks of a moral panic. The entire culture seemed to be on edge.
Hainan, too, seemed to be on edge when it had its mass panic. Wolfgang Jilek
, who studied the case, believed that “sociocultural stress” manifested itself in these sorts of epidemics. Researchers noted that past rounds were all preceded by major social upheaval: In 1952, it was land reform and redistribution of property. In 1966, it was the Cultural Revolution. In 1974, there was an epidemic of encephalitis. Wolfgang Jilek, who studied the Hainan case, believes that “sociocultural stress” manifests itself in these sorts of epidemics. One 80-year-old healer attributed a 1963 epidemic in her village to the Great Leap Forward, which she said brought “an ‘evil wind’ that intruded into people’s bodies.”
Certainly many of us felt like there were “evil winds” blowing through America in 2016. Yet it is hard to pinpoint the cause of our panic.
“Why a rumor sets off a panic is like watching a caveman banging two pieces of flint together to start a fire,” says Bartholomew. “Everything has to be just right. It has to be dry. It can’t be too windy. You have to have the right kind of rock. Rumors need three elements: some anxiety, some ambiguity, and some perceived importance. It also has to be plausible. Rumors are part of the human condition, but most rumors don’t lead to a fire.”
Given how divided our culture is, and the fact that half the country believes the president himself is a kind of creepy clown, it seems almost certain that sooner or later, the other clowns will be back.
÷ ÷ ÷
’s stories have appeared in Harper’s
, and Wired
and have been included in a number of Best American Travel Writing
anthologies. They’ve also been selected as “Notable” picks for Best American Sports Writing 2012
and the Best American Essays 2013
. He speaks several languages, has lived in countries around the world, and currently lives in Minneapolis. The Geography of Madness
is his most recent book.