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Killer Clowns Are Coming: The Real Story Behind the Legends

This time of year, in keeping with the Halloween season, a number of the more popular urban legends begin making their annual rounds. Occasionally, fascination with such stories as haunted cars and bridges, creepy stalkers, and killings at lover’s lanes may even inspire “copycats” that seek to play off the innate fears people have for gruesome acts and individuals that haunt the realms of nightmares, as well as internet forums alongside other products of myth the likes of Slenderman, and several others.

Arguably, despite people’s prevailing fears of paranormal entities and inhuman man-beasts, there are few things more frightening than the archetypal manifestation of Hell on Earth we recognize as the clown.

Scowling through what appear to be mutated, or perhaps surgically-altered lips, the likes of the “Brand X” victims of Jack Nicholson’s Joker character in the 1989 film Batman, something about the clown has become increasingly unsettling for us. Some have argued that this is a result of the revelation that famous serial killer John Wayne Gacy had, in fact, found work throughout the period of his horrible killings as a clown appearing at children’s parties; others cite Pennywise, the antagonist from Stephen King’s horror masterpiece It, as the source of the fear and hatred.

Twisty The Clown

Twisty The Clown

The more recent appearance of the terrible character “Twisty the Clown” on the American Horror Story television program has even managed to incite the fury of The National Clown Club, an organization of professional clown actors and advocates of the art.

As reported by the A.V. Club website:

“We do not support in any way, shape or form any medium that sensationalizes or adds to coulrophobia or ‘clown fear,’” says Glenn Kohlberger, president of Clowns of America. Kohlberger—who also goes by the clown name “Clyde D. Scope,” as a whimsical nod to another thing youngsters want nothing to do with—laments that clowns in pop culture, from Pagliacci to Poltergeist to Pennywise, so often seek to instill fear, rather than just allowing it to happen naturally. And he certainly doesn’t appreciate how many of them are portrayed as unhinged murderers, when that happened just that one, incredibly scarring time.

Perhaps it should be noted, however, that the current culture of clown-shock may not be entirely inspired by portrayals in popular media. A slew of reports out of Kern County, California, over the last few days allege that there are ongoing reports of people dressed as clowns that have been causing fear and concern around the Bakersfield and Fishers area. One arrest of a teenager dressed in clown gear led to his being charged with “annoying a minor” after he chased a group of schoolchildren, while other reports described a clown brandishing a gun that drew similar police attention.

Some argue, however, that the recent terror-clown reports are actually being exaggerated. A couple living in the town of Wasco, California, admits that what began as a photography project where a woman had been photographing her husband in various locales dressed in clown gear may have inspired the rumors, along with possible copycats. But no serious crimes, attacks, or other unsavory activity has actually occurred in relation to “copycat clowns”, as certain media outlets seem to be reporting. Bakersfield Now did a feature attempting to dispel some of the rumors, featuring quotes from area law enforcement:

“It would be nice if they would gather their facts regarding their story,” said Bakersfield police Sgt. Joe Grubbs. “We haven’t had any clowns committing any types of murders. Far from it.”

The same sentiment is echoed by Ray Pruitt, spokesman for the Kern County Sheriff’s Office.

“We have not been able to, in any of the cases, substantiate that anybody has been a victim of a crime,” said Pruitt.

Grubbs and Pruitt said they have been fielding calls from media across the country regarding reports about people dressed as clowns engaged in criminal activity.

So perhaps some of the reports are being overblown, although other news sources, more recently than the statements issued by police in the area, include not only additional reports of clowns, but even photographs of one of the purported “creepy clowns,” and further warning statements issued by law enforcement, such as the following alert carried by the Indy Star:

The Fishers Police Department is urging residents to call police if they spot a person dressed in a clown suit in the area.

Police confirm they have received reports of a person dressed as a clown, scaring people.

A Fishers resident sent Fox59 a photo of someone dressed as a clown holding balloons and walking in the area of 126th Street and Olio Road…. the sighting comes as news surfaced of a rash of “creepy clown” sightings in California, which appears to have started with the “Wasco Clown.”

Pennywise

Pennywise

There is, in fact, a longer history of reports of so-called “Phantom Clowns,” as they are often referenced in Fortean literature. Researcher Loren Coleman’s exhaustive survey of America’s oddities, Mysterious America, detailed one such flap of Phantom Clowns that occurred in New England in 1981:

“Investigative Counselor Daniel O’Donnell of the Boston Public School District even sent a memo to all the districts elementary and middle school principals saying, “It has been brought to the attention of the police dep. and the district office that adults dressed as clowns have been bothering children to and from school. Please advise all students that they must say away from strangers, especially ones dressed as clowns.”

The clowns spread from city to city East Boston, Charlestown, Cambridge, Canton, Randolph, and other cities near Boston. Police even tried stopping “birthday clowns” and other clown businesses to investigate but all were legitimate and no arrests were made.

A couple other frightening reports of a clown in a yellow van this time, ordering a girl to get inside the van while brandishing a knife. Another clown, or possibly a different one, welded a sword a couple days later in Kansas. The clown in the yellow van was wearing a black shirt with a devil picture on the front, and two candy canes on the sides of his black pants.”

Similar reports of Phantom Clown Flaps would occur in Australia around that time, although this wouldn’t be the last we’d hear of the Phantom Clowns in the United States. Coleman recounted a similar report that occurred in Chicago in 2008, where much like the reports from Boston, an evil clown purportedly tried to lure children into a vehicle:

In the October 2008 incidents, a man wearing clown make-up and a wig is using balloons in an attempt to lure children into his vehicle on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois. Police issued an alert about a week after a man with a similar description was spotted on the West Side.

The near abductions were reported in the 8300 block of South Mackinaw and the 10000 block of South Normal, according to a community alert by Calumet Area detectives.

The more dire implications here, of course, are that at various times there have been predators (or possibly groups of them) who have sought to use the appearance of a clown to lure children away from safety; an idea which, as a culture of fear has grown increasingly around it, removes the possibility that such tactics could be employed effectively in the future. This might not preclude the possibility, as we appear to be seeing in Bakersfield, California, that some might continue to employ the “evil clown” meme for other reasons, which appear to have everything to do with harassment and inciting fear among portions of the given locality.

It should be noted, following the above line of thought, that many of the more frightening fictional portrayals of evil clowns (namely that of Stephen King’s “Pennywise” character) wouldn’t appear until 1986, three years after the publication of Coleman’s Mysterious America, which first documented such appearances. The arrest and subsequent trial of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, however, had occurred in 1980, and had been publicized at the time. Such publicity, however, would have done little to encourage those seeking to perform kidnappings beneath the guise of clown makeup around the same time.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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