Clowns have never been wholly innocent. They were born of a a need for mischevious, boundary-pushing humor in the face of power. But now, seemingly more than ever, clowns are the face of utter horror and terror, literally embodying fear much like Pennywise in Stephen King’s It. Is there really an epidemic of predatory, “killer” clowns roving the United States?

The recent scary clowns phenomena are usually born of creative pursuits. The 2014 Wasco clowns and the recent spate of scary clowns began from intentional photographs. The Wasco clowns were born from an art project, and the 2016 epidemic started with some marketing to promote a short horror film. Once the story starts circulating about creepy clowns appearing in strange areas, however, it can inspire other people to copycat the situation. Sometimes it’s just a bit of misguided dark humor, but other times the intent may to be to instill real terror in the hearts of a community.

Multiple instances of this can create a viral sensation, not just of behavior, but in our minds. People can make up stories about clown sightings, or even start seeing malicious clowns even when they aren’t there. This is the template of the urban legend, of folk tales and ghost stories. Monster tales fulfill a kind of psychological need.

Professional clowns have felt this most recent spate of scary clown rumors, and have spoken up to protect their craft. Clowns will never not have an aura of creepiness. In a way, that’s part of their charm, but now they’re being truly vilified. They’ve become a symbol for our anxieties and fears in an uncertain world, a stand-in for the constant swirling terrors that can be too much to face.

No child has been harmed by the supposed clown epidemic, but there have been some arrests of young men donning clown costumes, lured in by the power of harnessing fear. As Halloween approaches and many don the creepiest costumes they can find, reaching for a clown costume carries a different weight. Choosing to be a clown for Halloween may be part of the solution, though. Halloween is about confronting our fears, of pushing the boundaries of social conventions and our own anxieties. We play with blood, eat eyeballs, and don the skin of what we imagine monsters to be. Clowns aren’t the true monsters, our perception, our terror is the weapon that haunts us the most. If clowns are a symbol of maliciousness we’re giving someone the power to start a panic simply by painting their face. A Mississippi county has actually banned clown Halloween costumes this year, which is taunting someone to dress as a clown and cause a scare. If everyone can dress as a clown, it takes the power out of the costume.