‘Killer Clowns’: Inside the Terrifying Hoax Sweeping America
Arriving home from work one day, a mother is greeted by her son who’s been anxiously waiting to tell her about the clowns he heard whispering in the woods near their apartment complex. Initially she assumes his mind is running wild in the summer heat, until her eldest son confirms the report, saying he heard chains rattling and banging on the front door.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an installment of Are Your Afraid of the Dark? but part of our new reality, as creepy clown sightings are cropping up across the country without explanation. On August 21st, reports of clown sightings surfaced near the Fleetwood Manor apartment complex in Greenville County, South Carolina. Officials took the strange reports seriously but were unable to uncover any real evidence or suspicious persons. The reports stretched beyond children hearing noises and seeing people with clown face paint: One resident said she saw a clown with a blinking nose standing beside a dumpster at 2:30 a.m. Other children came forward claiming clowns attempted to lure them into the woods with money and that the clowns “live in a house by a pond deep in the woods.” After hearing gunshots, police learned two residents fired in the direction of the wooded area where the sightings had supposedly taken place. A week later, more reports surfaced of clowns simply staring at Greenville residents near laundromats and, again, next to the woods.
Yet still, police couldn’t locate a single clown to question, leaving people to wonder whether this was a hoax, a marketing ploy, or simply child’s play.
But if it is all an elaborate ruse, roughly a dozen other cities are in on it – and some officials are worried there will be a violent end to the clown sightings. And in the five weeks since clowns popped up in Greenville, the pandemic has spread.
Last week, in what quickly became a viral Facebook post, a video of a clown lurking in the brush along a dirt road was taken by a person named Caden Parmelee in Marion County, Florida. The car Parmelee was in paused to film a person with white, sinister face paint, but the video cuts out as the clown begins to move and someone in the car is cut off saying “Let’s get the hell out of…” We can assume the final word of that was “here,” based on Parmelee’s comment to police that he wasn’t looking to die that day. Another Florida resident, Kelly Reynolds of Palm Bay, took up running last weekend when she saw two clowns while she was walking her dog. Reynolds reported to Florida Today, “I never run but I turned and ran back to my home as fast as I can.” Florida, a hotbed for weird shit, also had reports of creepy clown sightings in Pensacola and Gainesville.
The clowns crept up into North Carolina, littering the state with the grim face paint and costumes. A machete-wielding clown tried to lure a woman into a wooded area in Forsyth County. Winston-Salem increased police presence in certain areas after two children claimed they were offered candy by a clown if they’d follow it into the woods. In both Henrico and Augusta counties, parents and their children reported clowns “leering” at them from cars or on the edge of a forest. While the Augusta clown may still be wandering the forest, a local woman, Holly Brown, reported that the creepy clown was, in fact, her son Angus,a 12-year-old with autism, who donned his Halloween costume a month early. She stated her son was simply excited about the holiday and meant no harm. Given the clown-hysteria, he will only wear the costume on October 31st.
Pennsylvania, too, is rife with creepy clown reports. In Pottsville, there were reports of two people wearing “clown-like clothes,” driving around in a pickup truck scaring teens and children. In Ebensburg, a woman caught a peeping-Tom clown peering through her window. Most recently, York College sent a safety alert out to the campus – a reaction deemed necessary after receiving eight different clown reports since September 24th. More sightings have been reported in Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin and, most recently, New York State.
Police have begun arresting people dressed as clowns on various charges. In Alabama, seven people are facing felonies for making a terrorist threat, while two more juveniles face lesser charges. In Middlesboro, Kentucky, a 20-year-old man was arrested for wearing a clown costume while hiding in a ditch. In Virginia, two teens were taken into custody for donning clown costumes andchasing children. And in recent days, the list has been growing.
As campus safety officials in Pennsylvania pointed out in their notice, the “creepy clown” situation is becoming a national phenomena. Unfortunately, the situation is nothing new. In 1981, “sinister” clowns were seen in Boston and neighboring towns throughout New England. The clowns, who harassed small children, were never seen by adults. They would coax children into vans with candy, usually driving alongside children walking down the street or in front of schools. The Phantom Clowns, as they were dubbed by cryptozoologist Loren Coleman given their allusive nature, spread to Kansas City, Denver, Omaha, and Pennsylvania. Since the 1980s, clowns have made appearances across the country, usually in the weeks and months leading up to Halloween.
Coleman’s phantom clown theory is rooted in the “primal dread that so many children experience in their presence.” The first notable instance of a creepy clown is when serial killer John Wayne Gacy was captured in 1979. His alter ego Pogo the Clown frequented children’s parties, so his capture drew a connection between a killer and a clown. Three years later came Poltergeist, in which a sinister clown doll lives underneath the bed. Stephen King doubled down and only increased the public’s fear of clowns – his 1987 novel It, featuring Pennywise the clown, was made into a horrifying film in 1990. (People still love to fear clowns – Poltergeist was rebooted last year, and a remake of It is set toarrive next fall.)
Yet despite the recent arrests – and despite some state laws banning anyone over the age of 16 from wearing a mask or hood with the intent of intimidation or harassment – a solution to the phantom clown resurgence remains unknown. But more than stopping the phenomena, officials are concerned with the terrified people who may have a conceal-carry permit for a gun, or for vigilantes actively seeking to end the clown problem on their own. Child psychiatrist Dr. Steven Schlozman of Harvard University spoke to the New York Times about the power this problem has to “grab you emotionally before it grabs you cognitively.” It’s what caused videos and claims of clowns to go viral – whether it’s real or a hoax – and what leads to the horrifying outcomes our fears bring to pass.
What the country is facing now is not the fear of clowns, but the aftermath that’s likely to ensue. In Dr. Schlozman’s view, “It never ends well.”
On Aug. 1, reports of Gags – The Green Bay Clown disturbed Wisconsin residents. Later, the man who set up a Facebook account which fueled conversation about Gags sightings came forward, saying it is all part of an independent horror film coming out around Halloween.
Reports of clowns terrorizing people in South Carolina started in mid-August. One woman reported seeing a middle-aged white man in clown-like facial makeup and red hair standing outside the laundromat. The woman told police the clown stared at her as she walked out, but didn’t speak or follow her.
In another report, children reported clowns were trying to lure them into woods with money. Residents of the Fleetwood Manor Apartments in Greenville, S.C., reportedly received letters from property management encouraging them to abide by the apartment’s 10 p.m. curfew, and not to let their children walk alone at night.
“Obviously, this is the type of claim that we need to take serious whether it’s valid or not,” said Master Deputy Ryan Flood with the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office.
Deputies have not received any recent reports or arrested anyone.
Sept. 4, children reported a clown was trying to lure them into the woods in a Winston-Salem neighborhood. According to two kids, the man had on white overalls, white gloves, red shoes with red bushy hair, a white face, and a red nose. They told police he offered them treats if they would come into the woods. Police said an adult heard the man, but did not see him.
A few days later, the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office received an anonymous call that a clown was outside of an elementary school, but it turned out that report was false.
LaGrange Police in Georgia said it had received several calls about clowns “in wooded areas trying to talk to children.”
At one point, a middle school was under a “soft lock down” because of creepy clown reports, Deb Myers with the Troup County School System told LaGrange Daily News.
Georgia police arrested two people Sept. 14 for calling 911 and allegedly making false claims about clowns trying to lure children into a van. Officials didn’t find any clowns.
Sept. 20, a Facebook page was created (it has since been taken down) fueling fears in Georgia. The page said clowns would be driving to local elementary, middle and high schools to abduct children. LaGrange police department obtained warrants andarrested four people they believe are responsible for the threats.
A 10-year-old found responsible for making “clown threats” to Montgomery Public Schools in Alabama was arrested Sept. 21. Earlier that week, police arrested two high school students behind a since-deleted Facebook account named ClappyAndslappy DaClown, which released a 5-minute video threatening violence against Troy residents.
Additionally, police are looking for the person(s) responsible for a Facebook page, which has since been deleted, under the name Bingerman Clownferd. The social site threatened to visit Montgomery schools and beat students.
A clown call made Sept. 21 in Tchula, Miss., turned out to be true. Police Chief Kenneth Hampton said he saw someone wearing a mask, a multi-colored wig and overalls around 11 p.m. on Wednesday. The person, who was carrying what looked like a machete, ran away after seeing the patrol vehicle. The person in the clown outfit has not been seen since.
The Salisbury Police Department of Maryland recently investigated two reports of clown sightings. Callers said they saw three people dressed as clowns hiding in bushes and jumping out to scare people on Sept. 25. All three were reported to be wearing clown masks with orange and blue hair. Officers weren’t able to locate any clowns.
The Augusta County Sheriff’s Office has received numerous calls regarding clown sightings in Fort Defiance, Va. One report said several people were dressed as clowns in a woodland area. According to Virginia Code Section 18.2-422, a person over the age of 16 is prohibited from wearing a mask, hood or other device to cover or conceal the identity of the wearer. A violation of this code section is a Class 6 felony, which is punishable by one to five years of incarceration and a fine of not more than $2,500, according to a release. Either or both may apply if convicted of this offense, Sheriff Donald Smith said.
A woman reported seeing two clowns last weekend near Victoria Park, Fla. She said the clowns were staring at her. It’s unclear if they were trying to scare or harm her, but police issued an alert to surrounding agencies and searched the wooded areas and railroad tracks near U.S. 1. The clowns were not located.
“The problem is that someone dressed like a clown could scare someone and there’s a possibility, a possibility you could end up with someone getting shot,” said Lt. Mike Bandish of the Palm Bay Police Department. “A person could think that they’re about to get robbed.”
The most horrific clown report came from a Reading, Pa., neighborhood where a 10-grader was fatally stabbed after a fight with someone wearing a clown mask, according to PennLive.
This week, students at York College in southern Pennsylvania reported seeing people dressed as clowns, both on campus and off. Campus safety responded to eight different reports since Sept. 24. One anonymous tip reported on Sept. 26 that there was a car full of clowns possibly armed with weapons. Officials didn’t find any clowns.
In Pottsville, police were investigating after clowns were seen yelling at children. A girl told a TV station that a clown had chased her and her friends and later threw a broken stick at them from the woods.
Colerain Police Department in Cincinnati, Ohio, arrested a juvenile Sept. 29 in connection with clown threats to harm students at Colerain High School.
Reading schools are closed Friday after a woman reported being attacked by a male dressed as a clown. The woman told police that the attacker made a threat against students. No arrests have been made in the attack and schools were closed out of concern for of students that walk to school early, according to the Reading Community City School District.
Around 2 a.m. Sept. 27, a woman called police in Lancaster, Ohio, saying she saw someone dressed as a clown holding a large kitchen knife. Police talked with witnesses at the scene who said they saw two people dressed as clowns: one in a gold suit with balloon and another in all black. Officers checked, but were unable to locate the clowns.
Two south Nashville Metro Schools went under a soft lockdown following a social media threat reportedly involving a clown, according to information from school officials and a Metro-Nashville dispatcher. Authorities said the threats weren’t credible.
Fort Collins Police Services and Poudre School District were notified Sept. 28 of athreatening Facebook message. The message, which threatened students at Poudre High School, came from a now deleted page using a clown profile picture. The Fort Collins police are investigating.