Did anyone follow the “creepy clown” phenomenon in the run-up to Halloween this year? For weeks the nation’s imagination was inflamed by rumors of knife-wielding malefactors dressed in clown costumes, prowling our byways, looking to do evil. No one seems sure exactly where this urban began. But coulrophobia – the clinical term, if you can believe it, for the fear of clowns -- traveled fast, with social media driving both the hoax and the hysteria across borders and even oceans: in Britain, one creepy clown roamed a London university campus carrying a chainsaw, and another loitered in a cemetery, axe in hand.

These two jokers were not real would-be murderers, just masquerading as such; and the phenomenon is less significant as crime than as cultural signpost or symptom. Halloween masquers have been spoofing madness and mayhem for centuries, after all. So why the creepy-clown panic now? What does it mean when a band of college students, responding to social-media reports of a creepy-clown sighting, grabs hockey sticks and heads out on a clown-hunting posse, as happened here in my home state, at the University of Connecticut? Across the nation, the clown meme sparked a fevered panic, complete with threats against schools, leading to lockdowns and arrests of teenaged hoaxers, and provoking no less a horror authority than Stephen King himself to tweet that it’s “time to cool down the clown hysteria.”

I’m interested in what the epidemic of coulrophobia reveals about who we are becoming – people enclosed within our world of social media, increasingly captive to both the chores and the rewards of texting, tweeting, and constant updating.

I have written before (and also before that) in perplexity at the dominion that digital technologies have stealthily gained our lives, and how over the last six years or so, without protest – without even noticing it, it sometimes seems to me – we have become a nation of smartphone zombies, shuffling through our lives with heads bent over our devices, fingers incessantly swiping away. New research details the neurochemical side of this action, the dopamine rush we get each time the little ping announces an incoming text. The Today Show recently discussed this research, the hosts looking at each other with hangdog guilt -- whereupon co-host Hoda Kotb announced a bold new policy she’d undertaken. “When I get up in the morning, I don’t even look at my phone for ten minutes!” she enthused, as Matt and Savannah marveled.

The creepy-clown scare highlights how our digital system functions as an enclosed and all-encompassing environment. Social-media reports spur rumors of murderous clowns, which in turn trigger the transmission of creepy-clown images and hoaxes; the Instagram report of a local sighting arouses a mob to storm a graveyard; then it’s back to the devices, to post images and notes on the brief foray into the physical world, record the likes and tweets and retweets, throw in a cautionary tweet from a globally famous author; still more pings, more rewards; update it, send it along, keep a lookout for more! Such busy traffic within the virtual domain of a global communications system is what passes for life now.

The limitations of that life are the subject of a confessional essay published in New York Magazine in September by the author and blogger Andrew Sullivan. Bearing the mournful title, “I Used to Be A Human Being,” it describes how Sullivan became “a manic information addict,” and how bit by bit a daily life lived among real people and places gave way to what he calls “living-in-the-web.” Sullivan’s essay pays close attention to the way in which immersion in digital technologies altered the pace and texture of his life and the apportioning of his attention and energies.

Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long.

This hectic activity, which began with Sullivan’s avid blogging, became even more hectic, he writes – for him and countless others -- when “the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time.”

It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But... the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.

For Sullivan, life-in-the-web proved enervating. His health, both physical and mental, deteriorated. He was now too impatient to read books. Longstanding friendships suffered as he poured himself into maintaining digital ties to the multitude of strangers who were his online interlocutors. In time, an undercurrent of anxiety formed in him. “I’d begun to fear,” he writes, “that this new way of living was actually becoming a way of not-living.” Ultimately, Sullivan decides to take back his life. He goes to a meditation center, surrenders his phone and submits to “the ultimate detox.” The forced separation from life-in-the-web yields discomfiting recognitions about our “enslavement to dopamine;” our inability to be present with other people; the evaporation of solitude; our accommodation to – and reliance on -- hectic clamor as the default texture of experience; and a certain emotional blunting that goes along with all of it. It all adds up to a dreary vision of existence. Sullivan quotes the comedian Louis C.K., explaining why he chose not to get smartphones for his kids: “You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel … kinda satisfied with your products. And then you die.”

Sullivan’s poignant confession peaks with a cathartic moment in the woods, when pent-up emotion comes pouring out of him, as if all his manic online activity in the past fifteen years has been a means of running from a deep wound. Sullivan’s particular wound traces to the “formative trauma” of a childhood with a bipolar mother; but it could be any of our deep hurts, driving us to seek distraction in the incessant busyness of digital life. “Yet our need for quiet has never fully gone away,” Sullivan writes,

because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. They are always giving way to new wants and needs, always requiring updating or repairing, always falling short. The mania of our online lives reveals this: We keep swiping and swiping because we are never fully satisfied. The late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott starkly called this truth “the deadliness of doing.”

The remedy for the deadliness of doing, in Sullivan’s view, lies in “a spiritual reconciliation to this futility, an attempt to transcend the unending cycle of impermanent human achievement.”

There is a recognition that beyond mere doing, there is also being; that at the end of life, there is also the great silence of death with which we must eventually make our peace. From the moment I entered a church in my childhood, I understood that this place was different because it was so quiet. The Mass itself was full of silences — those liturgical pauses..., those minutes of quiet after communion when we were encouraged to get lost in prayer, those liturgical spaces that seemed to insist that we are in no hurry here. And this silence demarcated what we once understood as the sacred, marking a space beyond the secular world of noise and business and shopping.

Sullivan reminds us that “a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are.” The problem, he continues, is that

just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination. This changes us. It slowly removes — without our even noticing it — the very spaces where we can gain a footing in our minds and souls that is not captive to constant pressures or desires or duties. And the smartphone has all but banished them.

Sullivan’s essay is illustrated with a witty revision of “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” by the 19th German romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich. The original painting depicts a somber landscape with a human figure poised in contemplation, and conveys an ambiguous quality of heroic loneliness – the human protagonist both communing with nature and also profoundly separate from it. Such images, already nostalgic when Friedrich deployed them, are doubly so today, with the further remove of digital technology added in (the illustration for Sullivan’s essay shows the lone figure not contemplating nature directly, but taking a photo through a smartphone). They convey a deep longing for our presence in a physical world, and for our vanishing solitude and repose.

Sullivan’s recovery proves short-lived; returned from his digital detox, he finds himself prone to relapse, and more or less resigns himself to it; “I haven’t given up,” he writes, “[but] each day, at various moments, I find myself giving in.” And so do we all. We are helpless surfers, action addicts riding one mini-meme after another, then quickly paddling out for more. The land recedes apace, and the fields and trees we once lived and walked among are mere smudges on a distant shore. We all know who the truly creepy clowns are, zombies lost to the deadliness of doing; and they are not wearing masks.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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