Clowns are a perennial Halloween costume: Not particularly zeitgeisty or inspired, but timelessly creepy and easy to recognize.
This Halloween, however, one town in France has other ideas. In a decree issued Oct. 28, just days before the big day, Pierre Dudieuzere, mayor of Vendargues, a small town near Montpellier, banned all clown costumes for anyone over 13 on Halloween and for a month afterward. The decree makes clear that the ban is "absolute" on the eve of Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, and that anyone violating it would be arrested and prosecuted.
Dudieuzere's ban on clown costumes may seem extreme, but it comes from a real concern. Last weekend, according to Agence France Presse, more than a dozen teenagers were arrested while dressed as clowns in the Mediterranean port town of Agde. They were reported to have pistols, knives and baseball bats.
These teenagers, and others like them, appear to be following the example of trend spread online via social media. There are countless numbers of clown prank videos on YouTube, produced by people from a variety of countries, some of which have been viewed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of times. Here's one filmed recently in France:
Such pranks are antisocial but far from rare. Last year, a number of clown sightings in the United Kingdom led to a lot of hype in the tabloid press, and this month, a number of clowns terrorized one Californian city, leading to one arrest.
But in France, the pranks appear to have been particularly menacing. In the town of Bethune, a 19-year-old apprentice butcher was recently given a suspended sentence for using his costume to scare children. “I saw it on Facebook," he told the court, according to the Guardian. And in Montpellier, a man who assaulted a stranger with a metal broom handle while dressed as a clown was recently sentenced to four months in prison. The man later admitted that he was drunk and inspired by videos on YouTube.
For many, just as disturbing as the clowns is the backlash. On Facebook, there are scores of pages dedicated to "Chasseur de Clown," or clown hunters. Videos on YouTube appear to show vigilantes mobbing and attacking people dressed as clowns.
And in the French town of Mulhouse police recently arrested teenagers carrying weapons including brass knuckles and a baseball bat. The teenagers told police that they were hunting a clown, according to France 24. Video posted to YouTube appears to show a confrontation with a clown in the city.
It was all enough for France's national police force to issue a statement condemning not only the clowns but the vigilantes. "Despite numerous reports to the police, only a few instances of people dressing as clowns to scare passersby were identified," the statement read. "Everyone, whether they are aggressive clowns or clown hunters, discovered in possession of a weapon (hammer, knife ...) in public will be arrested and put in custody by the police."
Ultimately, Vendargues's ban on clown costumes may sound dramatic, but French authorities seem sure that the problem is overblown and will end soon. "Some delinquents took advantage of it this weekend. But while it is not insignificant, it's still quite limited," one police source told AFP this week. "It's part of these short-term fads that live on as long as media talk about them."
And as creepy as clowns can be, their popularity may be waning. Information from America's National Retail Federation shows that consumers have been passing over clown costumes in recent years They seem to be favoring witches and vampires instead.