Last month, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio put forward a $30 million, 10-year plan to close down the city’s infamous prison facility at Rikers Island, a decision motivated in part by the tragic story of young Kalief Browder. Browder was 16 years old when he was pulled off the street and arrested on acharge of stealing a backpack. He was never tried or convicted on any charge, but he spent three years at Rikers because he couldn’t afford to post bond and his court appearances were repeatedly delayed. The experience was profoundly brutalizing, and two years after his release, Browder took his own life. Browder’s story is a national shame that should hasten Rikers’ demise, but it is also emblematic of the institution’s past even before it was a prison.
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On Monday, as a hurricane moved inexorably towards the US, an otherworldly wind blew across places where young people congregate. From small-town middle schools to vast state universities, students were convinced that they saw clowns. Schools have been closed. The police have been run ragged, the apparitions always one step ahead of them, seemingly able to melt away as soon as an authority looks in their direction.
This is far from the first time that apparitions haunting young people have sent adults chasing horrors they couldn’t themselves see. In 1692, what came to be known as the Salem witch trials began with little girls pointing to empty space and insisting that evil spirits stood there. The events at Salem were especially shocking because of how powerfully and how quickly rigid power structures were turned upside down. Seventeenth-century Massachusetts was not a place where children’s experiences were privileged. Puritans were firm believers that young people needed to be forced, against their naturally sinful natures, into a Godly submission. Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister who was fascinated by the Salem witch scare, was fond of reminding children that they were obligated to obey the fathers that God had placed in charge. In one sermon, Mather warned the young members of his congregation that rebelling against one father figure was tantamount to throwing off the yoke of divine authority. “Can you dream,” he asked the children looking up at him, “that God will allow any Contempt of Political Parents, of Ecclesiastical, or of Scholastical?” In case the young upstarts were unsure of the answer, Mather was happy to provide a terrifying visual of the fate awaiting doubting children: “The Eye that mocks at his Father and despises to obey his Mother,” Mather intoned, “the Ravens of the Valley shall pick it out, and the young Eagles shall eat it.”
Mather’s terrifying sermon tapped into a larger horror story his contemporaries told themselves about a younger generation that seemed destined to wreck the world their parents had created. Puritans didn’t call the young people “millennials,” but many of the complaints leveled against teenagers and young adults would not be terribly out of place in a 2016 think-piece: these seventeenth-century upstarts didn’t respect authority, they had neither the faith nor the work ethic necesary to fulfill the promise of their parents.
There was a need, the elders agreed, to make the colony great again.
So when young girls and adolescents, some of them low-status servants and orphans, insisted that they saw threats invisible to powerful adults, they offered a powerful challenge to the belief that grown-up men knew best. The adults’ nostalgia for the allegedly better days of their own youth was revealed as its own delusion. As they progressed, the witch trials demonstrated that the most commanding adults in the community were powerless to stop, or even to truly recognize, the horrors that their children could see plain as day.
The clowns currently haunting schools and colleges are different embodiments of a nostalgia for a supposedly more innocent past. They conjure up a time when circuses came to town, and children–now insistent on an endlessly replenished steam of new memes and snapchat updates–could be amused by something as simple as a red nose and a painted-on smile.
Pennywise, the monster lurking in Stephen King’s It, and the godfather of the modern creepy clown fixation, first makes his appearance in a scene that could be taken out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Set in the 1950’s, the novel opens with an achingly innocent six-year old boy who takes his homemade toy boat out to play. When the river’s current takes the boat down a storm drain, little Georgie finds himself facing a clown who smilingly offers him balloons, an enticement that proves deadly. A nearby adult, running to Georgie’s aid, is powerless to keep the child from being ripped limb from limb.
The clowns children are seeing everywhere from South Carolina to Maine don’t seem to share Pennywise’s thirst for blood. In truth, it’s unclear what precise threat these clowns pose. In many of the images posted online, the clowns are almost always standing silently off in the distance, not doing much of anything. The fear they create emerges solely from their appearance, their very visibility rendered terrifying to young people in a world where the police, and school attendants, and their parents, tell them there is nothing to see.
“Clowning,” Eric Lott has written, “is an uncanny kind of activity, scariest when it is most cheerful.” The clown’s smile, his forced and immovable whimsy, is precisely what renders him grotesque. Sigmund Freud tells us that the uncanny works by making the familiar strange. The uncanny also scares us by reminding us of how strange, and terrifying, the familiar landscape of family, of home, of nation truly are. When we are faced with the uncanny, the face we want to believe represents reality morphs into a grinning evil twin, his face mirroring a truth we’d do anything to avoid seeing.
These elusive, uncanny clowns—lurking adults whose unreadable faces beckon gullible children into horrible traps—reflect a reality that Americans wish wasn’t quite so familiar. After all, many of the alleged grown-ups in our national room seem incapable of seeing what’s right in front of them: they are unable to discern which threats are real and which are imaginary. Both the insidiously quiet creep of climate change, and the alleged onslaught of monstrously rapacious Mexican immigrants are realities for roughly half of the population, and mere ghost stories for the other. With tragic regularity, the news features stories where average, every-day people doing every-day things–sitting and reading a book, waiting to pick up his child from school, or dealing with a broken-down car—somehow appeared so monstrous to authorities they felt necessary to respond with a deadly force appropriate for the most dire of threats.
This latest political scandal–in which we watched Donald Trump behave in ways that should surprise no one who wasn’t pretending they couldn’t see what has long been in front of them–is just the most recent manfestation of this hallucinatory campaign season. National ghosts–our repressed violence and hatred–walk the streets openly. And yet we act surprised when we find ourselves looking at them head on.
Both the Salem witch scare of 1692 and the great clown scare of 2016 began as visions in the eyes of scared children. But both now and then, we dismiss these stories at our peril. A child’s desire to render their worst fears in a recognizable form, and to ask powerful grown-ups to scare the monsters away, is not a just a strange aberration in an already surreal year. Rather, the clown scare is an uncanny telling of the terrifying story that’s unfolding for all of us at a moment in which none of us can believe what we’re seeing.