Scary clown sightings make a comeback with a boost from social media

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 29: A darts fan in an evil clown mask fancy dress poses as they arrive during the Sydney Darts Masters at Hordern Pavilion on August 29, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 29: A darts fan in an evil clown mask fancy dress poses as they arrive during the Sydney Darts Masters at Hordern Pavilion on August 29, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Credit: Nedra Rhone

Credit: Nedra Rhone

The latest rash of scary clown sightings -- which first surfaced during August in South Carolina, North Carolina and Wisconsin -- have come to Georgia.

Police in LaGrange are still trying to track down the owner of a Facebook page on which an individual threatens to get in a van dressed as a clown, drive to local schools and kidnap kids.

If history is any indication, it seems the phantom clowns of decades past have made a return and this time, they are getting a boost from social media.

"It is a combination of urban legend, internet meme and mass hysteria with a little Freddie Kruger all rolled into one," said Benjamin Radford, author of the recently released "Bad Clowns," which features a chapter on phantom clown sightings .

"Some people get really upset because they think there are people dressed as clowns trying to kill people and I'm like, 'But no one has done it.' It’s not really a thing until someone actually does it," he said.

This latest episode of phantom clowning kicked off around 2013. Bands of roving clowns were spotted around the globe particularly in England and France. At the time, French authorities said the clown culprits were copycats inspired by clown prank videos on the internet. The crazy clowns quickly surfaced in the U.S.,  but certainly not for the first time.

"There have been reports of phantom clowns on and off for decades," said Radford. "It has been fascinating to watch it in real time."

Clowns in general, arrived in the states in the late 19th century from England. The funny-faced performers brought humor to the circus when they were called on to fill any gaps in the circus performance, said Forrest Garner, president of the South East Clown Association (SECA).

Historically, clowns have always had a mischievous side, but in America, as they became more closely associated with children, there also came the expectation that clowns should always be happy, laughing and covered in rainbows.

In the early 1970s, John Wayne Gacy, the murderous clown who killed more than 30 young men in Chicago, ended clowns' era of innocence in the U.S. The floodgates opened for representations of scary clowns in popular culture, most notably Stephen King's Pennywise the Clown, attacker of children,  from his 1986 thriller "It."

Even before that, in 1981, the scary clown sightings of Boston set the stage for the modern age of the phantom clown -- a theory put forth by cryptozoologist Loren Coleman in which clown sightings spread from state to state (often in the months before Halloween) but remain virtually unsubstantiated.

The phenomenon occurred again in the early nineties, with isolated phantom clown sightings scattered throughout the 2000s.

Mixed in with the phantom sightings, have been a few cases of people who have dressed as actual clowns and scared people, Radford said.

"These were real people dressed as clowns but they weren’t actually harming people, they were just playing pranks but then someone takes a photo, it goes on Instagram and Facebook and everyone looses their minds, the media picks it up and the whole thing snowballs," he said.

The recent reports of clowns lurking near children and offering them money and candy came from Wisconsin, South Carolina and North Carolina before arriving in Georgia.  In most cases, children or adults reported seeing the clowns and gave visual descriptions to authorities, who are never able to track the clowns down.

Naturally, social media, has helped spread the fear. In at least one case, police determined that a clown image on social media purportedly taken near a school, was in fact not from the area at all:

The internet has been a powerful force in fueling the clown panics and scares, Radford said. "You share a photo of some gory thing that could be a clown and say it was stalking people in the park, and of course it is going to go viral," he said. People will share or like the image for different reasons. Some may want to be cautious, others may just think its good for a laugh, he said.

What Radford can't understand is why in the era of mobile communication, none of these recent clown sightings has been documented on a cell phone except in a few dubious cases.

"In some cases, we know the adults were lying," he said. "In some cases, people are making it up for attention." In other cases, an individual -- child or adult -- may see something and assume it is a clown because that is now part of the public consciousness, Radford said.

Last week, deputies in Cleveland County, NC issued a warning that fake clown sightings would be treated as a crime. And most other police departments have followed suit which is how the two pranksters in Georgia ended up with an arrest.

The whole thing has become a real headache for the professional clown community.

"I really don’t know what it is all about," said Garner of SECA.  "At different times, different people pick up different things to target. Right now it seems to be clowns."

True clowns, he said, rely on kids and families for their income, so scaring the public definitely isn't part of their agenda. Clown costumes can cost more than $1,000. The shoes -- good ones, anyway -- cost $600 to $700. "We are talking big money. It has hurt the clown community because of what they are doing," Garner said.

SECA membership is down to around 200 members, he said. And at their recent convention, the clown sightings were part of the conversation.

They talked about ways to build one other up when they see a fellow clown out working and they reinforced the importance of adhering to the clown code of ethics which includes no drinking, smoking or removing your clown suit in the presence of others.

If you see a clown, Garner said it is easy to spot a fake. "If they don’t have the nose and the feet, they don’t know what clowning is," he said.

Redford predicts the whole phantom clown trend will die down after Halloween -- just as it always has in the past. "I understand why the public is fearful. I get the urge to protect children, but at the end of the day, no one has been harmed, abducted or killed," he said.

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