It sounded like a scene right out of a horror movie: police were summoned to a residential neighborhood in Winston Salem, North Carolina, in response to a suspicious person seen in a nearby forest, beckoning to children and offering them candy.
The character seen lurking in the woods was described as “wearing white overalls, white gloves, red shoes with red bushy hair, a white face and a red nose.”
“It” was a clown (no pun intended).
Fox News affiliates in the area reported that, “The suspect allegedly tried to lure the kids with treats. The suspect was reportedly seen by two children and heard, but not seen, by one adult. The suspect fled the area when officers arrived.”
However, the incident was not isolated; a similar report of a clown attempting to lure children into a nearby wooded area was reported in Greenville, South Carolina, one week earlier.
Each of the incidents bears similarity to themes involving menacing clowns, which are popular tropes in films such as Stephen King’s It (1990), as well as the Chiodo Brothers’ Killer Clowns from Outer Space (1988), Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003), and numerous others.
Despite their popularity in film, the “phantom clown” concept predates such media by a number of years. Going all the way back to May 6, 1981, police in Massachusetts were alerted to a series of attempted child abductions that may have involved individuals in a van dressed as clowns. The incident was described by researcher Loren Coleman in his book Mysterious America, in which the author was first to coin and use the term “phantom clown” in relation to such incidents.
Reports of similar incidents have seemed to continue over the decades, with a flourish of “phantom clown” sightings attracting law enforcement attention near Bakersfield, California two years ago, as well as a number of Staten Island communities.
In late 2015, a similar grouping of reports began to appear near Kent, England, with authorities advising to be on the lookout for “schoolchildren being stalked by clowns.”
The Mirror reported at the time that, “Kent Police have issued the caution after a number of ‘suspicious incidents’ in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, in Kent… Schools in the town issued their own advice after a boy was approached by two men in a van on Wednesday morning. Luckily he ran away and told his school what had happened.”
Arguably, the presence of the “abduction van” in such incidents has become as much a part of the mythos of the phantom clowns as the eerie characters themselves. But do cases like this help explain the broader notion of clowns being frightening, despite their cultural presence as jovial tricksters or performers?
In 2015, researcher Benjamin Radford suggested in an article that some of the classic stories of “phantom clowns” may have been hoaxes, some even the creation of various media agencies. Radford further cited the work of folklorists Sandy Hobbs and David Cornwell, who wrote that, “Many of our informants suggest possible origins of the clown story: parents, police and the mass media are all cited. One student reports that older children told the stories to frighten younger ones. Others appear to assume that the story derives from an actual incident, even though it may have become exaggerated in the telling.”
Although a number of incidents of clowns acting in a menacing way have been reported, it should be noted that there is no evidence of child abductions occurring in conjunction with the phantom clown sightings.
Nonetheless, as reports continue as recently as the last few days (as of the time of this writing) in parts of the Southeastern United States, the myth of America’s Phantom Clowns appears to be alive and well… and as disturbing as ever.