Creepy clowns have recently been reported in Greenville, S.C., allegedly luring children into the woods behind a block of apartments. It's scary and alarming -- but whether they're real is another matter.

Most of the handful of reports are from children, though a few are from adults. No one has actually been harmed or even touched. The children believe the clowns live in a house located near a pond at the end of a trail in the woods, though when police investigated they saw no signs of suspicious activity or anyone dressed as a clown.

According to an ABC News story, "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."

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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 earlier this month in Wisconsin and Canada. In one case a pair of teenagers dressed as clowns were having fun in a park scaring younger kids, and in another a clown seen at night was revealed to be part of a viral marketing campaign for a scary film. A year earlier, a creepy clown was sighted outside a Chicago cemetery.

Most evil clowns are fictional, though a few (such as serial killer John Wayne Gacy) are real. Other bad clowns are 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. They are known as phantom clowns, a phrase coined by author Loren Coleman in his book "Mysterious America."

Phantom Clowns

As discussed in my book "Bad Clowns," one of the earliest reports of phantom clowns occurred in May 1981, when several children in Brookline, Mass., 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.

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Folklorists Sandy Hobbs and David Cornwell in the book "Supernatural Enemies" researched phantom clown panics and concluded that parents, police, and the mass media all played a role in spreading and legitimizing the rumors: "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."

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. If the clowns were real, why were they so invariably incompetent? Surely at least one of the bad clowns would have succeeded. Any real clown could easily abduct a child at a birthday party and spirit the victim off to a waiting van. Dressing as a clown is guaranteed to draw attention, which is exactly the opposite of what real-life child abductors want to do.

The Greenville sightings seem to be the most recent reappearance of this mythical menace. In the end, as "The Atlantic" notes, there's "little evidence the clowns exist" at all. An Aug. 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."

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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 either 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 is remote. Many people likely recognize this, but parents and police understandably err on the side of caution, deciding it's better to be safe than sorry.

The rumors can, of course, have serious consequences. 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.

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