FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images
By Katie Mettler, The Washington Post
For now, McDonald’s is benching its mascot.
In a statement Tuesday, the fast-food chain announced that Ronald McDonald and his signature red and gold garb won’t be seen in public for a while, at least until America stops being so collectively terrified of his kind.
The chain’s more than 14,000 locations nationwide are “mindful of the current climate around clown sightings in communities” and “are being thoughtful in respect to Ronald McDonald’s participation in community events for the time being,” spokeswoman Terri Hickey said in an emailed statement to NBC News.
The announcement comes after weeks of reported creepy clown sightings across the United States that have led to something approaching mass hysteria, playground panic and even some arrests.
It first began in August, when residents of Greenville County in South Carolina called authorities to report a clown, or someone dressed like one, “trying to lure children in the woods,” said the property manager of an apartment complex in Greenville.
Sightings spread to North Carolina, then to Alabama and Kentucky. Soon, callers were reporting creepy clown sightings across the country – and even internationally. In the United Kingdom, authorities have responded to dozens of apparent clown sightings, including one in northeast England, where a man dressed as a clown and carrying a knife allegedly followed four children to school, reported CNN.
“We believe this to be part of a much larger prank which is currently sweeping across the USA and parts of the UK,” Durham neighborhood Sergeant Mel Sutherland said in a statement to CNN. “It is very alarming he was carrying a knife, however we do not think he intended to harm the children and as far as we are aware, this is part of the prank.”
Officials in Australia and Canada have also issued recent clown-related warnings.
In the United States, students have worn clown masks to class and a school district in Connecticut even banned clown costumes for Halloween. A Virginia middle school girl was arrested and charged with “one count of Threatening to Kill by Electronic Message” after she contacted an individual online whose profile photo was a clown and asked that person to murder one of her teachers.
Even the White House was asked to weigh in on the crisis.
“Obviously, this is a situation that local law enforcement authorities take quite seriously,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said during a briefing earlier this month. “And they should carefully and thoroughly review perceived threats to the safety of the community, and they should do so prudently.”
TV news packages have shown startled parents clinging to their young children at playgrounds. Clown mask sales are up from 2015, by 300 percent.
And in the most extreme cases, authorities have even arrested clown pranksters. In and near Detroit, authorities arrested two men this week for driving around town in clown garb to scare community members, including those at a fast-food drive-thru, reported the Detroit Free Press. Authorities are investigating a separate incident that shows a clown clinging to a city bus, which was captured on video, according to the newspaper.
This irrational, or perhaps now rational, fear of clowns even has a name: coulrophobia.
A Rasmussen poll published in 2014 found that 43 percent of Americans “don’t like circus clowns,” and 6.8 percent of Americans face severe anxiety caused by clowns, according to the Chapman Survey of American Fears.
In the face of such bad PR, “good” clowns have banded together to reclaim their profession. Ron Anglin, a professional clown who works at a children’s health-care center in Atlanta, started using the hashtag #RealClownsAreAboutLove on social media to “counter all the horrible images out there,” he told Buzzfeed News.
“Fear mongering and hate mongering seem to be all the rage these days,” wrote another professional clown on Facebook. “Can we get some love? Real clowns want you to know that those scary creeps out there are part of the hate. Real clowns are real love. Spread the word. Defend our kindness!”
A group in Tucson organized a peaceful “Clown Lives Matter” march for later this week “to show that clowns are not psycho killers,” according to a flier, reported the Arizona Republic.
McDonald’s signature clown mascot has served as a similarly friendly marketer of the chain since he debuted in 1963. Ronald McDonald was originally played by Willard Scott in an ad in Washington, D.C., reported the Associated Press. He now wears big floppy shoes and a puffy red wig, but then, the clown’s hat was a tray holding a Styrofoam burger, a bag of fries and a milkshake, according to the AP. He pulled hamburgers, magically, from his belt and wore a nose made from a McDonald’s cup.
The company faced pushback in recent years from critics who said McDonald’s was using the clown to market unhealthy food to young children. But the company has always been protective of their beloved clown.
When the AP asked in 2011 how many actors played Ronald McDonald, an executive bristled at the idea that their signature jester is not real.
“There’s only one Ronald,” the executive said.