In August 2016, creepy clowns were reported in Greenville, South Carolina, allegedly luring children into the woods behind a block of apartments. It’s scary and alarming—but whether they’re real or rumor is another matter. Most of the handful of reports were from children. No one was actually harmed by the menacing clowns, who children believe live in a house located near a pond at the end of a trail in the woods. Police who investigated this sinister Hansel and Gretel–like tale found no signs of suspicious activity or anyone dressed as a clown.
According to an ABC News story (http://tinyurl.com/zjrv3gp):
One resident said she was in front of her apartment one evening when one of her sons “approached her and stated that he [had] seen clowns in the woods whispering and making strange noises.” The resident added that she “went over to the area that her son mentioned and observed several clowns in the woods flashing green laser lights” before seeing them run off.
If this report is to be credited, it suggests that pranksters are afoot—perhaps teenagers with store-bought clown masks and laser pointers having fun. If so, it would be only the latest in a series of creepy clowns reports; in fact, there were two recent cases in Quebec and Wisconsin. In the former case, a pair of teenagers dressed as clowns were having fun in a park scaring younger kids; in the latter, a nocturnal clown was revealed to be part of a viral marketing campaign for a scary film.
Most evil clowns are fictional, though a few (such as serial killer John Wayne Gacy) are real. But there are other bad clowns reported to roam streets and parks looking for innocent children to abduct—yet they seem to vanish just before police can apprehend them. Some say they are real, while others claim they are figments of imagination. Known as phantom clowns, they were first sighted in 1981 when several children in Brookline, Massachusetts, reported that clowns had tried to lure them into a van with promises of candy. Police searched the area but found nothing. The following day, Boston parents and police grew worried when children there claimed that adult clowns had been bothering children on their way to school.
Other reports surfaced in other cities and in later years with the same pattern: Parents were fearful, children were warned, and police were vigilant but despite searches and police checkpoints, no evidence was ever found of their existence. Throughout the phantom clown panic, no hard evidence was ever found, and—more importantly—no children were actually abducted. This suggests that some form of social delusion or mass hysteria was at play.
The Greenville sightings seem to be the most recent reappearance of this mythical menace, and in fact there’s little evidence the clowns exist at all. An August 21 report from the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office offers additional insight, noting that “Several children of the community stated that several clowns have been appearing in the woods behind building ‘D’ and try to persuade them into the woods further by displaying large amounts of money.”
This is a curious (and suspicious) detail. Malicious clowns might be expected to lure children with candy or ice cream—but big stacks of Benjamins? Flashing wads of cash can draw a crowd anywhere, and no clown costume is needed. It seems like an example of urban folklore in the making, perhaps fueled in part by creepy clown sightings in the news and the recent release of publicity photos of the Stephen King killer clown Pennywise from the upcoming film It.
The Greenville clown reports are likely pranksters, mistakes (for example assuming that a bang on a door must have been caused by an unseen clown), legend, or a combination of all three. The chances that one or more people dressed as clowns are actually trying to abduct kids and assault people are remote.
By mid-October, the scary clown panic had spread across the country to dozens of states, fueled by hoaxes, copycats, pranksters, rumors, and social media. The creepy clown panic became so serious that it was addressed in an October 4 White House briefing; Press Secretary Josh Earnest said:
I don’t know that the president has been briefed on this particular situation…. Obviously, this is a situation that local law enforcement authorities take quite seriously, and they should carefully and thoroughly review perceived threats to the safety of the community, and they should do so prudently.
Many of the reports were later admitted to be hoaxes; for example, a North Carolina man who falsely claimed that a scary clown had knocked on his window at night was arrested for faking the incident, and an Ohio woman claimed that a knife-wielding clown attacked her on her way to work and cut her hand but later admitted she made up the story because she was running late for her job at McDonald’s. In a handful of cases, there were real injuries (fights and so on), but they weren’t inflicted by strangers dressed as clowns.
The rumors can, of course, have serious consequences. Schools in Alabama and other states were temporarily placed on security lockdown due to threats allegedly made by clowns on social media (see my September 22 CSI online Special Report “Alabama School Panic: Is ‘Clown Lockdown’ the New Normal?” at http://tinyurl.com/jlhfosv). At any other time reports of threatening clowns would likely have been ignored or dismissed, but these copycat clown incidents come at a time when very real terroristic threats and school shootings are in the news. Parents can take comfort that no clowns are actually trying to abduct or harm kids—not a single credible report has surfaced of any child being hurt or even touched by a threatening clown in recent weeks. Still, teachers and police understandably err on the side of caution, deciding it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Amid the rumors and scares, one eleven-year-old girl in Georgia took a knife to her middle school to fight off clowns, and in several instances, people shot at real or imagined clowns with guns and rifles.
As I describe in my book Bad Clowns, this is not the first time that a rash of scary clown reports has surfaced; pranksters used social media to share creepy clown photos in October 2013, and the so-called phantom clowns date back to the early 1980s. Though children have little to fear from stalking clowns, the urban legend may pose a real danger; as the Sheriff’s report notes, “While speaking with the residents I was informed male subjects from the complex heard about the recent clown activity and heard noises in the woods behind building ‘D’. I was told these men fired weapons in the direction of the wooded area.” No one was hurt in the shooting, but as long as people take the rumors seriously, the lives of both face-painted pranksters and innocent bystanders may be at risk—whether the phantom clowns exist or not.