Seriously, does anyone actually like clowns? These brightly dressed figures with their gaudy costumes, makeup, props and balloons have long been a staple of circuses, children’s birthday parties, and main stream pop culture ranging from Bozo the Clown to Ronald McDonald, but at the same time they have over time wormed their way down from their cheerful facade into our psyche, and inhabited a dark place where our fears dwell. Especially towards the end of the 20th century, clowns have experienced a shift from the role of entertainer to something more akin to fuel for nightmares, a transformation on TV and in movies from fun characters to villains, and indeed most people regard them as at the very least creepy, if not downright horrifying. In fact, the fear of clowns is so pervasive in our society that there is even a name for it: coulrophobia. Yet sometimes it seems that these disturbing figures that inspire so much dread in so many people have a way of somehow stepping out past the bounds of our imaginations, pushing past the membrane that keeps our fears tethered to our minds, and appearing out in the real world. In many locations throughout the United States and even across the pond in England, there have for years been reports of mysterious phantom clowns that seem to appear without warning or reason to terrorize locals before simply disappearing without a trace when their mischief is done. Far from an isolated case, phantom clown reports are so widespread and numerous that they have indeed become a whole bizarre area of Fortean interest in and of themselves. No one knows where these clowns come from, why they appear, or who they are, but we do know one thing; most people would prefer they stay in the circus.
Perhaps one of the most mysterious and infamous incidents involving phantom clowns running amok occurred in 1981, when the city of Boston, Massachusetts, was held under siege by the bizarre sudden appearance of what appeared to be a cabal of individuals dressed as clowns harassing small children, a case which was well documented by cryptozoologist Loren Coleman in his book Mysterious America. This horrific, unsettling series of phantom clown appearances started in May of 1981, when Boston police began to receive numerous reports that mysterious men brightly dressed up as clowns were riding around in a dark van, following or driving up to elementary school children and attempting to entice them to follow or go along with them. In some cases the clowns were said to use candy or toys to help lure the children, and in one particularly creepy account one of the clowns in question was said to be dressed as a clown from the waist up and completely nude from the waist down. At around the same time, mysterious clowns were also seen in the nearby city of Brookline, where they were said to drive about in an older model black van with ladders on the sides, a broken tail light, and missing hubcaps, and were most frequently seen in the vicinity of elementary schools. The reports and complaints filed concerning clowns harassing children became so persistent, and provoked so much profound unease in parents that Investigative Counselor Daniel O'Donnell of the Boston Public School District sent an urgent memo to all of the schools in the district saying:
It has been brought to the attention of the police dept. 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.
Before long, this flap of clown sightings had spread out to various other surrounding areas, including East Boston, Charlestown, Cambridge, Canton, Randolph, and other cities near Boston. The reports steadily gained momentum until sightings of creepy or “evil” clowns were coming in from all over New England and the Midwest, including as far away as Nebraska and Colorado. While most of these reports described a similar story of clowns driving around in a black van at night trying to entice or lure in children, a few of the reports deviated from this and indeed had a more ominous overtone. In one case, a clown in a bright yellow van and wearing a black shirt with a devil picture on the front, as well as black plants with candy canes on the sides, was said to have threatened two young girls with a knife in Kansas City on May 15, 1981. The incident was witnessed by the mother, who although she didn’t see the actual clown said the girls approached the van only to come away screaming in terror as the vehicle sped off. By noon of the very same day, the yellow van clown would go on to feature in over a dozen additional sightings of apparently the same individual and vehicle prowling around a total of six elementary schools, and these reports would pour in until around 5PM that evening, when they suddenly just stopped. Another report at around the same time from Kansas described a psychotic clown wielding a Japanese style katana sword and threatening children to get in his van. While the clowns were mostly reported near schools or where children congregated, there was at least one creepy report of a clown lurking about a Brooklyn cemetery. Joining these mystery clown reports was another bizarre account from June of 1981 describing three people dressed as Spider Man, a gorilla, and a clown, who tried to abduct a boy in Arlington Heights PA. There was also reportedly a person dressed as a rabbit who was allegedly going around harassing children as well, just to make the case even more surreal than it already is.
These reports were widely circulated in the local news and school district memos, and in Providence, RI, the reports of sinister clowns were well on the radar of psychiatric social workers counseling the city’s youth. Police for their part went about investigating numerous entertainment outfits featuring clowns, such as “birthday clown” businesses, but no arrests were made nor indeed any suspects detained for questioning. In fact, not a single useful lead was turned up regarding the identity or whereabouts of the clowns. In the end, no children were actually kidnapped or injured during any of these alleged incidents, no suspects were apprehended, and it was surmised to be merely some sort of mass hysteria or overactive imaginations on the part of the young victims, even though such reports were coming in from all over the place and the eyewitnesses encompassed all age groups. Other ideas bandied about at the time were that the reports originated with some sort of demented cult or human trafficking group, but no evidence has ever surfaced to this effect. It was also suggested that the clown sightings were perhaps simply imaginary manifestations of the subconscious fear that was roiling about due to the release of Stephen King’s novel It, with its infamous clown character, Pennywise, but these sightings were going on before the book or the movie, with its disturbing evil clown imagery, were even released. Loren Coleman astutely observes in his book:
Today people try to kindly inform me that the phantom clown flap of 1981 was just mass hysteria caused by King’s book … even though the first editions of King’s book were not published, until 1986.
In the absence of any developments the case was eventually closed, but while the mystery clown flap of 1981 is probably the most famous and intensely concentrated amount of sightings of these insidious figures, it is by no means the only instance of the phenomenon of phantom clowns, and indeed such entities have been sighted all over the United States, from the East Coast to the West. 1990 and 1991 in particular saw a resurgence in various phantom clown reports from many areas, but such cases have continued all the way up into more recent years as well. According to the Wisconsin State Journal of Madison, on June 20, 2000, a man dressed in a creepy clown costume was seen near the King James Court apartments, Fitchburg, at around 12:30 PM trying to lure children into the woods with the use of three brightly colored helium balloons. The case is made more interesting by the fact that police later claimed that the man's black face paint was unusual for a clown and “set him apart from any of the three mainstream styles of clown costumery.” Fitchburg Police would elaborate on this, saying:
That's extremely, extremely unique. It isn't in the legitimate style of clowning, which kind of leads us to believe the person was using it as a costume only for this purpose (enticement).
In October of 2008, in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago, phantom clowns struck again. In this case a clown in a bright costume and wig with a prominent colorful teardrop painted on his face was seen loitering about trying to lure young kids into a brown or dirty white van with broken out windows. Again, as in the Wisconsin case, the clown in question was said to be using flashy balloons to aide in luring in youngsters. Soon reports of the clown were pouring in from across the city of Chicago and a massive manhunt was launched to try and apprehend the mysterious individual. Many in Chicago were reminded of the infamous serial killer John Wayne Gacy and his clown alias “Pogo the Clown,” and an icy fear gripped the city at the time. The clown was often sighted on foot near Beidler Elementary School and in the vicinity of Gardner Park, but was never captured, no suspects were questioned, and his identity remains a total mystery.
These mysterious evil clowns are not isolated to the United States either. In 2013, there was a rash of crimes by what appeared to be a gang of people dressed as circus clowns in the vicinity of Manchester. Although there were the usual reports of clowns following children or attempting to entice them into vehicles, other reports were decidedly more threatening in nature. In total, there were 19 separate reports of alleged clown related crime during this period, ranging from theft to one that stole a bicycle after holding its owner at knifepoint. Several of the clowns were reported to go around using their bright get-ups to collect money for charity, only to run off with the loot to keep for themselves and for the charity to turn out to be a nonexistent sham. One of the more frightening crimes carried out during this particular phantom clown spree was an alleged full on armed robbery committed by a posse of individuals decked out in full clown costumes, wigs, and face paint. In another flap of sightings, in 2014, in the vicinity of Northampton, England, a clown was seen wandering about several locations within the city. In this case, the clown, who was not known to be particularly menacing to anyone, was well documented and even photographed and filmed on a number of occasions. The mystery clown went on to perplex authorities and generally creep people out in the area for a full six months before his reign of off-putting bizarreness ended. Although previous accounts of phantom clowns are more steeped in high strangeness and are more shadowy and tenuous in nature, the Northampton clown eventually proved to be real and an actual person in a suit when it was found that the whole thing was a prank perpetuated by a young filmmaker by the name of Alex Powell.
While the culprit in this case was eventually identified, others have enduringly remained more mysterious, and indeed 2014 seemed to be another boom year for strange phantom clowns. In October of 2014, the city of Wasco, California was terrorized by a group of clowns that appeared at night on desolate streets and were reported to roam about wielding not only fun party props like balloons or horns, but also more menacing objects such as axes, knives, mallets, baseball bats, and machetes. In one case, an eyewitness reported the ghoulish sight of a clown slowly rocking back and forth on a mechanized unicorn toy by the side of a bleak, deserted road. In total, around 20 reports per week of “evil clowns” flooded the police, who were at a loss as to who could be behind it all and were unable to apprehend any of the fiendish things. It wasn’t even clear if there was only one perpetrator or a whole gang of them at work. While none of the clowns were concretely connected to any crimes, one deputy from the Kern County Sheriff's Department in Wasco claimed that there had been eyewitness reports of the clowns engaging in a range of criminal behavior, and one young boy at the time claimed to have been chased down a street by an intimidating axe-wielding clown. Making the whole situation even more bizarre was a social media account on Twitter from someone calling themselves Wasco the Clown, who claimed responsibility for many of the sightings and routinely posted bold messages punctuated in a sinister manner with gun and knife emoji. Wasco the Clown claimed at the time in one such post:
I am the creepy, evil-looking clown that is roaming the streets of Wasco, California at night. Come Find Me I will give you a balloon.
Bakersfield Police were ultimately able to make one arrest of a 14 year-old dressed as a clown, who was reportedly chasing around people at night, but when questioned the boy claimed that he was just copying the online clown and having some prankish fun. Although authorities were not able to make any concrete connection between the Twitter account and the reported clown activity, it soon became obvious that the boy who had been arrested was not the true culprit. In fact, in the wake of the arrest, the social media activity became more and more active and ominous as time went on. Instagram pictures of clowns posing in front of various places in Wasco, Delano and Bakersfield, were posted along with menacing captions attached to them saying things like “come out and play" and "It's funny you guys think I got arrested." In many of the photos there were more than one clown, often in threatening poses or brandishing weapons, and one such online pic came with the taunting caption "Like I said there's more than one of us. We’re all over." Sgt. Joe Grubbs of the Bakersfield Police Department said of the situation in a statement to ABC News:
There's a natural phobia of clowns. And, clearly, if someone is dressed up as a clown and holding a weapon in a threatening manner, that's going to frighten people.
The clowns and their social media presence became so notorious and well-known that people began driving around at night trying to look for them, and indeed they became celebrities of sorts. Speculation around who the clowns were swirled, with theories ranging from some sort of cult, to Halloween pranksters, to an elaborate marketing campaign for a horror movie, but no one really knew for sure. One local man anonymously claimed that the whole thing had started when he and his wife had decided to dress like clowns for a photography project. However, authorities were unable to ascertain whether the ongoing clown activity was a bunch of copycats of the social media postings, vice versa, if they were spurred by the couple, or if it was all completely unrelated. There was no guarantee the couple even existed at all. Very little headway was made into the investigation and again no further arrests were made. Whether the anonymous couple and their project somehow sparked the trend or not, it became obvious that they were by no means the only clowns out their running amok. Wasco continued to be inundated with mystery clown sightings, and indeed the phenomenon spread out all over the San Joaquin Valley, with police estimating that there were around 20 phantom clowns operating in the region at one point. However, no arrests were made, no concrete leads or evidence were found, and none were able to be detained for questioning, further eluding and baffling frustrated law enforcement officials. Indeed many reports which were promptly followed up on led the police to scenes where the clowns had simply disappeared, leaving no clues as to where they had gone or if they had ever even really existed at all.
It’s obvious that although no violence was directly linked to these mystery clowns, not many things are as startlingly terrifying as coming across the garishly dressed and pale faced visage of an out-of-context clown on a darkened lonely street. Perhaps the most pressing question we are faced with is where did all of these phantom clowns come from and why do they seem to always appear in an intense rash of sightings? There have been a range of theories offered up on the possible basis of the phantom clown phenomenon. One is that what we are seeing is simply a case of some kind of mass hysteria perpetuated by the scary image people have of clowns. In this version of events, a child sees a clown, it startles or frightens them, and in a panic they think that it has threatened him or her in some way. This gets relayed to parents, and with the natural fear of anything happening to their children already high, coupled with the abuse of trust and generally freaky vibe demonstrated, it incites a panic in impressionable parents who begin to suspect that someone is using their child’s trust in clowns to take advantage of them. The media gets a hold of this whole clown angle and runs with it, and before you know it other children are coming forward with their very own stories of evil clowns threatening them in the dark of night, which further stokes the flames of media sensationalism and public panic. The problem with this particular theory is that the reports were not only given by children, with adults seeing them as well, and then there are the social media images to contend with, although these may indeed be just copycats or fakes.
Another idea is that the clowns are just pranksters carrying out a practical joke for a laugh or even actual dangerous criminals such as human traffickers, thieves or child molesters using the clown disguises to cover their identities or sow confusion, but it seems like the use of brightly colored, conspicuous clown regalia is not a wise choice for people who generally do not want to draw attention to themselves. Then there is the fact that no actual crimes or violence have been concretely linked to these mystery clowns in most cases and no children can be proven to have actually been abducted by any of them. There is also the perplexing question as to why reports of mysterious clowns seem to appear in clumps and in locations all over the United States and indeed in the UK, as well as why so few of these enigmatic perpetrators have ever been caught by authorities despite presumably being so easy to spot, almost like they’ve just vanished into thin air. Despite the many cases of seemingly credible reports of evil clown activity from many far flung locales, almost no one has ever been detained or questioned in relation to the cases, and indeed many times the police have shown up and found no trace of any clown at all. In fact, it is mostly thought that the few of these mischievous clowns that have actually been caught or identified were merely copycats of the real culprits, who are still out there somewhere, or totally unrelated.
Since we are talking about a subject here that is deeply strange and not a little creepy, of course the theories on what lies behind the phantom clown phenomenon branch out into more fringe realms as well. One of these ideas is that the appearance of these clowns is subconscious human fears somehow manifesting, congealing and projecting onto our reality, in this case the pervasive terror that clowns invoke in so many actually creating visual constructs that others can see. This concept can be seen in both Tibetan and Indian Buddhism in the form of the tulpas, which roughly translates to “magical emanation", "conjured thing" or "phantom." In these Buddhist mystical traditions, the tulpas are illusory, magical beings or objects that are created and take physical form in our world through sheer willpower, spiritual or mental discipline, or potently powerful concentration alone. Simply put, they are being put into or imposed upon this world solely through the power of the human mind. Could this be what the phantom clowns are? Is society’s ever growing creeping fear of clowns somehow making them real, at least in a sense? This is thought to explain why none of them except for copycats can ever be tracked down or caught; because they literally vanish into thin air. It is certainly quite a far out theory, and would be very difficult to prove in any scientifically meaningful sense.
Another weird theory is that the phantom clowns represent some sort of spirits or demons that rear their heads from time to time. This was mentioned by cryptozoologist Loren Coleman, who has done a considerable amount of investigation into the phantom clown phenomenon. Coleman speculates that the clowns are perhaps “demonic tricksters” that can change form, and appear for the apparent purpose of intimidating or invoking fear in those who see them. In this scenario, the phantom clowns are, for whatever mysterious reasons known only to them, taunting or toying with humanity. This theory was also widely proposed by the Mothman Prophecies author John Keel as well, and this basic concept could extend out to the goblin universe inhabited by other enigmatic bizarre figures such as the Men in Black, black eyed kids, flying humanoids, Mothman, real world sightings of Slenderman, and maybe even ghosts and aliens as well, that seem to appear in our reality for the sole purpose of playing games with us, toying with our minds, making us uneasy, or flat out terrifying us. Is it possible that at least some of these phantom clowns are such trickster spirits, playing with our perceptions of reality and wearing whatever visage provokes the most fear or unease based on whatever the eyewitness is most afraid of or disturbed by? Is there perhaps some profound cosmic or universal meaning to all of this, and are all of these mysterious beings related somehow in the grand scheme of things?
The weird phenomenon of phantom clowns seems to be going nowhere anytime soon, and it seems reasonable to think that it is perhaps only a matter of time before they start to pop up again somewhere. It is a possibility made somewhat more disturbing considering we don’t know who or what they are, or what their ultimate goals might be. Are these all just jokesters? Are the clowns malevolent criminals out to do us or our children harm? Is this all just mass panic and hysteria stoked by our own fears and the media? Or are these phantom clowns perhaps something stranger from beyond our understanding or even our world, stalking our reality along with their brethren the Men in Black, Mothman, and others, engaged in some sort of game or experiment upon humanity for inscrutable purposes we will never comprehend? Whatever the phantom clowns are, they represent a phenomenon that reaches deep down into the human psyche, to prod and poke at the basest fears that lurk in the shadows of our subconscious. No matter what they are, and indeed whether they are real or not, they certainly have a place down there in the black miasma of our fears, cavorting about our nightmares with their garish baggy clothes, bright wigs, and pale, red nosed faces, peeking out at us from the gloom.