A clown was recently sighted in a Chicago cemetery late at night, raising questions and alarm among many locals. A couple saw and recorded the brief encounter with the colorful creeper. As Dave Savini of CBS Chicago reported:
"The cell phone video tells it all: A person dressed in a clown suit, trespassing at historic Rosehill Cemetery in the dead of night. Julia Graham says she was ‘freaked out' at the figure as it ran toward the main gate. She and her husband were driving by around 10 p.m. ‘When we get closer, we realize it's a clown, which is super weird,' she says. The first picture her husband snapped was of the clown scaling the 7-foot-tall gate at the Ravenswood Avenue entrance."
The clown apparently stood in front of the cemetery waiting to be illuminated by the headlights of a passing car. Once he (or, possibly, she) was seen, the clown paused, waved slowly for maximum creepy effect - likely inspired by the famous scary film clown Pennywise of Stephen King's novel and TV miniseries "It" - then scaled the gate and ran away. Officials investigated and found no vandalism in the cemetery - just a clown waiting for an audience.
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This is only the most recent in a series of creepy clown encounters. Though scary clowns have always been with us, the phenomenon of people dressing up as clowns to scare people, usually at night, is fairly recent.
The first to achieve international notoriety was the so-called "Northampton Clown," a masked fiend who prowled the streets of Northampton, England, in October 2013. He did not harass, attack, or threaten anyone, he just appeared long enough to frighten people - and get his photo taken. He soon had his own Facebook page where people who glimpsed him were encouraged to post their sightings and photos. He was later revealed to be a local prankster and amateur filmmaker.
Less than six months after the Northampton Clown scare faded, another clown was seen lurking on the roads of Staten Island at night; That turned out to be a publicity stunt for a movie company. Clowns reappeared shortly before Halloween 2014 when residents in the California towns of Bakersfield and Wasco reported seeing scary clowns at night. Some were photographed holding weapons, but no one reported being threatened or hurt. One arrested youth said he was inspired to dress up by social media and news reports.
Around the same time a cluster of reports swept across France. According to a paper presented at the 2015 International Society for Contemporary Legend Research by Belgian folklorist Aurore Van De Winkel, the European clown panic "began in France on Oct. 10 with a disguised teenager chasing his terrified neighbor with a plastic knife in downtown Périgueux (in central France), simply as a practical joke."
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While the first reports and pranks were inspired by news media reports from the United States and online pranks and videos, malicious people began to use the clown scare rumors as a cover to commit crimes. Van De Winkel noted that there were several reported clown attacks throughout October and November, including an incident on "Nov. 5 when a 90-year-old woman was attacked by two hostile clowns in Paris while she was withdrawing money from an ATM. They stole 300 euros from her account."
The Scary Clown Invasion The scary clown is an iconic figure, evoking such characters as the Batman nemesis The Joker, Pennywise, and of course part-time clown and serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
People dress up as scary clowns for various reasons, including as a prank or as publicity stunt for a film or product. Many are copycats, inspired by online videos and news stories, and some are acting out scenes in scary movies in a process folklorists call ostension.
Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand, in his "Encyclopedia of Urban Legends" explains "that sometimes people actually enact the content of legends instead of merely narrating them as stories."
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For these people sharing a funny or scary story about creepy clowns online isn't enough; They want to act out the part and participate in the story. Ostension is often harmless and occurs, for example, when ghost hunters seek out spirits in a reputedly haunted location following a legend, or when teen girls perform the Bloody Mary ritual to summon a scary witch from a mirror. On rare occasions when disturbed people engage in ostension the results can be potentially deadly, as happened last year when two young Wisconsin girls stabbed their friend nearly to death to appease the fictional character Slenderman.
The latest clown report in Chicago has all the hallmarks of a dramatic prank. These sorts of clown scares are ripe for copycats because they're easy to pull off - all you need is a clown costume. They're not particularly dangerous or illegal – the prankster will likely get only a misdemeanor trespassing citation if caught. And they're virtually guaranteed to get widespread coverage on both social and news media.
Because who can resist a story about mysterious, creepy clown?