Thanks to iconic fictional villains like Pennywise from It, the creepy animated doll from Poltergeist, and American Horror Story‘s Twisty, to name a few, clowns have become some of the most unnerving human disguises of all time. This fall, people across America have been capitalizing on that built-in creep factor by scaring the daylights out of random passersby, with varying levels of ill intent. Some have simply been spotted standing around to scare up some shock-value squeals, while others have actually threatened or caused harm to others. What started out as an isolated incident in a single Southern city has since become a strange national pandemic of eerie clown sightings in cities across the country, and the facts surrounding this new wave of weird criminality are almost too bizarre to believe.
How it all started
The terror first began in Greenville, South Carolina, on August 21, 2016, when the county sheriff’s office filed a report from an apartment complex in which residents claimed to have seen a suspicious person in a clown costume lurking about the neighborhood and trying to lure kids into the woods with money. The clown in question was initially believed to live in an abandoned home near a trail in the woods, but when police approached the empty residence, nothing was found.
It didn’t stop there, of course. Within a matter of days, residents of other Greenville apartment complexes reported seeing not one but two clowns lurking near the woods, indicating that even more actors might be suiting up to summon up scares in the Palmetto State in a freakish trend.
They've since been all over the place
In the few weeks that followed the initial sightings, clowns began to pop up again and again, and their activity level has been vastly different from case to case — when the sightings are confirmed, that is.
On the milder side of the spectrum are cases like what happened in Washington state, after several people reported seeing clowns out and about making odd gestures to people on the streets. In Denver, one clown was said to be following people to their cars and then stopping and waving when confronted. Not that either of those instances aren’t bad enough (because, seriously, why?!), but those actors were pretty harmless compared to other cities.
In Portland, Oregon, for example, a 20-year-old woman said she was almost carjacked by someone in a silver clown mask who started banging on her windows and attempted to enter the vehicle before she sped off. In Phoenix, a pair of 17-year-olds were arrested for a string of armed fast food store robberies committed while wearing clown masks and wielding a gun, although no one was hurt, thankfully. And in Columbus, Ohio, a 14-year-old boy said he was chased by a knife-wielding clown while on his way to school and only escaped by running to a bus stop after hurling a rock at his pursuer.
At least one case has turned fatal
Despite so many spine-tingling reports, some still might not take the recent rash of clown-related crimes seriously and consider it a giant, albeit spiraling-out-of-control, hoax. At least one of these scattered incidents has turned fatal, however. A 16-year-old Pennsylvania boy named Christian Torres was stabbed to death in late September, allegedly by a 29-year-old man who showed up to a residential area wearing a clown mask (one which was reportedly inspired by The Purge, no less) and got in a fight with the victim. The victim was mortally wounded by being stabbed in the heart and was declared dead on the scene, while two others were also wounded by stabbing during the attack.
A lot of schools have been affected
Several schools across the nation have briefly been locked down in response to clown-related threats on social media. In Fort Worth, Texas, for example, school children were reportedly frightened to find a clown in the parking lot tying balloons to cars, while others witnessed a clown running down a street sidewalk yelling. Area schools were put on lockdown after the reports while they investigated the threats and, ultimately, came up empty-handed.
At the University of Delaware, students and police were on high alert about the possibility that a campus crawler may have adopted the menacing mask routine there as well. And a clown in Fort Wayne, Indiana, harassed 11 elementary school students waiting at their bus stop.
There have also been some disturbing school threats
Given the sudden spread and severity of these incidents, officials across the country are taking online clown threats very seriously, especially when they involve schools. Some social media users have sparked grave concern by blasting threats to specific schools. For example, in Mesa, Arizona, a Facebook account called “Ain’t Clowning Around” was said to have publicly announced threats like, “We will be at high schools this Friday to either kidnap students or kill teachers going to their cars” and “Ready to play Red Mountain Kids?” (Red Mountain is the high school in the district.) The account reportedly even texted certain students with threats that he or she planned to hurt the kids. Similar Facebook threats were made at other schools, including in Houston. A Twitter account by the same name also threatened students at Pasco County, Florida, schools.
Kids themselves are getting involved
It’s not just adults getting in trouble for this not-funny business right now. There’ve been several cases of kids who have themselves gotten in on all the clowning around, and the law has not treated their juvenile delinquency kindly. For example, a 10-year-old (yes, ten) in Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested and charged with making a terrorist threat for a clown-related remark.
Meanwhile, a 13-year-old girl was also arrested and charged in Hampton, Virginia, after she reportedly attempted to contact a clown online in hopes of having him murder her middle school teacher … really. And a 15-year-old was arrested in Fairborn, Ohio, after he was caught adopting an online clown persona which threatened to kill local students. We’d say these kids should just go outside and get away from their computers more, but … yeah.
Some people are fighting back
While many people are relying on first responders to tackle any potential threats, others are taking measures into their own hands and lashing back at the clown offenders they come across. For example, a man in Greensboro, North Carolina, reportedly grabbed a machete and chased the clown who was haunting his apartment complex back into the woods. Meanwhile, an 11-year-old from Athens, Georgia, was arrested for bringing a knife to school in order to protect herself from the lingering threat of clowns which were being investigated in a nearby area.
Even a policeman has gotten in trouble
A White Hall, Arkansas, police officer was suspended without pay for two days for dressing up as a clown and allowing the photo to be posted to his social media page, even though he wasn’t suspected of having any part in local sightings of dangerous clowns. While it might have seemed like a fairly innocent action, his superiors regarded it as an exercise of poor judgment, given the current anti-clown climate, and decided to take official action against him for it.
False reports are flying
One of the more challenging aspects of addressing this deluge of petrifying pranks is that it’s hard for authorities to determine when reports are real or false. Some police stations have shown a sense of humor about rampant rumors, like the Orem, Utah, police department, which included a photo of Ronald McDonald in a Facebook post about the clown scares.
But it isn’t funny when false reports come into play, like when a Macon, Georgia, couple reportedly lied to police about clowns trying to lure children into a white van. They were charged with obstruction and unlawful conduct. In Reading, Ohio, a woman reportedly fabricated a story about being attacked by a clown as an excuse for showing up late work and was charged with giving a false police report.
Actual clowns don't like what's happening
While we can probably expect an uptick in the amount of clowns taking to the streets this Halloween as a result of this fracas, real-life clowns-for-hire are none too thrilled with the toll this stream of scares has taken on their line of work. In Corpus Christi, Texas, a group of trained clown entertainers reported fears that their business would take a financial hit as a result of the spree.
Another clown expressed his concern that he may be in actual danger of being harmed by someone who might mistake him for one of these bad actors. “I’ve been working very hard to be a friendly clown,” said Ivan Mendez, of Kansas City, Missouri. “It’s scary because … I see some comments of people that want to kill clowns.” In Oakland, Maryland, meanwhile, a troupe of pro clowns opted out of participating in a planned parade as a result of the increasing fear of their presence.
It's causing some Constitutionality questions, too
Under normal circumstances, ordinary citizens would be well within their Constitutionally protected right to free speech to dress up in any way they like that’s not considered indecent (in other words, nudity), including these ultra-creepy clown costumes. But right now, considering the implicit threat contained in such a look, some people are getting into trouble simply for donning the less wholesome versions of a clown get-up. But whether it’s legal for them to be locked up is questionable.
For example, in Cross County, Arkansas, the sheriff has issued a warning to residents that if they’re seen wearing “bloody-faced” or “scary” clown costumes, they’re going to face legal trouble for that decision. “I’m not talking about the Bozos or the Ronald McDonald clowns,” Sheriff J.R. Smith said in a statement after four men were reportedly spotted wearing clown costumes in Wynne, Arkansas. “It’s the evil, scary clowns who have the intent to scare and harass people.” Sheriff Smith isn’t the only one to take such draconian measures to protect his town from clowns, either.
Police in Middlesboro, Kentucky, arrested a man who was dressed as a clown near the woods of their town, justifying the arrest by stating that “Dressing as a clown and driving, walking or standing in public can create a dangerous situation for you and others … While dressing up is not, in and of itself against the law, doing so in public and thereby creating an unnecessary sense of alarm is illegal.”
University of Arkansas law professor Danielle D. Weatherby immediately challenged the legality such orders, telling the Democrat Gazette, “What you wear, without conduct, cannot be criminalized,” and, “Someone else’s subjected fear is not grounds for any arrest.” Count on this to possibly cause a First Amendment tangle in the courts if it gets too carried away.
This has happened before
Perhaps the most surprising element in all this is that it’s not the first time a gaggle of clowns has run amok and caused problems for communities. In 2014, the town of Bakersfield, California, was the site of a series of scary clowns roaming about town at night. That rash reportedly began as an innocent photography project which incited copycats who then did terrorize locals in costume, as the previously innocent picture poses suggested.
Just as soon as it began … it ended
For something that looked exactly like the start of a terrible horror movie, the clown thing wound up being mostly nothing. Despite fears of a mass invasion featuring scores of creepy, weapon-happy clowns who long for your blood and screams, one that was supposed to start on Halloween and presumably end when the last non-clown stopped breathing, very little happened. If that isn’t enough, since Halloween, there have been virtually no sightings of creepy clowns, if any at all. Aside from the occasional actual attack by a psychopath dressed like Krusty, it’s almost like the creepy clown thing was never much more than a spooky Halloween gimmick.
But something did happen on Halloween! Kind of. In Orange County, Florida, two men were checking their car out when 20 teenagers wearing those scary clown masks from The Purge showed up and unleashed Hell. One of the men was stabbed with “a machete-type weapon,” while the other took a hockey stick to the head, an injury that required staples to close back up. Sadly, as of this writing, no arrests have been made.
But one attack does not equal a clown-pocalypse, and since then nothing has happened. Either the bored kids dressing up like clowns and acting like the Joker found something new to do, or the creepy clowns were all scooped up by the mothership and put in stasis until next Halloween, when their services will be required again. There’s only one way to find out … wait.
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