History

Creepy Clowns Reportedly Stalk UK Children

Recent reports from Britain claim that scary clowns are stalking children. And not for the first time. Continue reading →

Reports have surfaced in England over the past few weeks of people dressed as clowns stalking and trying to abduct - or at the very least scaring - children.

According to a news story in The Mirror:

"Pupils have been warned to ‘go straight home after school today and not to loiter' as reports continue of schoolchildren being stalked by clowns. Kent Police have issued the caution after a number of "suspicious incidents" in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, in Kent.... Since then, there have been reports of people wearing clown masks being spotted in a van on St John's Road in Tunbridge Wells on Tuesday and Wednesday. Schools in the town issued their own advice after a boy was approached by two men in a van on Wednesday morning. Luckily he ran away and told his school what had happened."

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This is not the first time that clowns have been reported terrorizing people. Over the years a handful of mysterious clowns have appeared in cities around the world with the apparent intent to frighten and unnerve the public. It happened almost exactly a year ago in the California towns of Bakersfield and Wasco, followed by a series of attacks by clowns in several French cities.

Before that, a weird clown was reported in Northampton, England, and then Staten Island. And, in July, a creepy clown was sighted at night in a Chicago cemetery.

When a clown treads on private property, that's potentially trespassing. It may result in authorities being called - and the clown identified, his or her motives determined and a possible arrest. Clowns appearing in public are another matter: There's no law against anyone in a costume walking down the street or visiting a public park.

While most of these reports were determined to be hoaxes, pranks and publicity stunts, the recent reports from Britain are a bit different. What are being described are dubbed phantom clowns - "phantom" because they are reported, but never caught.

Phantom Clown Panics Writer Loren Coleman coined the term "phantom clowns" and described them in his book "Mysterious America." One of the first reports of phantom clowns occurred on May 6, 1981, when police in Brookline, Mass., issued an all-points bulletin asking officers to watch for a vehicle containing potential child abductors.

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The vehicle was distinctive: an older-model van with a broken headlight, no hubcaps and ladders on the side. It was also full of clowns. Several children reported that clowns had tried to lure them into the dark van with promises of candy; police investigated but found nothing.

Though some sensational stories of child-abducting clowns were an invention of the news media, a few children reported firsthand abduction attempts. One boy told police that he had been confronted by a clown armed with an Uzi machine gun in one hand and machete in the other. The clown fired off five shots, but the boy counterattacked the surprised clown by throwing his book bag at him. Deciding that an Uzi and a machete were no match for a small bag of schoolbooks, the clown lost his nerve and ran off.

Not surprisingly, the boy later admitted that he had made up the whole story, probably for attention.

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The 1980s and 1990s were the heyday of phantom clown sightings, though a few reports have continued in recent years. Throughout the phantom clown panic no hard evidence was ever found that the clowns even existed, and no children were actually harmed or abducted.

Phantom Clowns and Folklore The phantom clowns appeared in connection with other rumors and urban legends. As folklorists Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith write in "Urban Legends: A Collection of International Tall Tales and Terrors," the phantom clown panic was "caused by an urban legend that circulated exclusively among children by word of mouth," fueled in part by parental concern.

Folklorists Sandy Hobbs and David Cornwell examined the origins of the phantom clowns in their chapter of the book "Supernatural Enemies," asking, "How did this rumor of evil clowns originate? Many of our informants suggest possible origins of the clown story: parents, police and the mass media are all cited. 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."

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Whether the recent British sightings are hoaxes, pranks or a genuine menace, parents and children can take comfort in the fact that the phantom clowns never actually succeeded in abducting any children (or anyone else). For anyone genuinely trying to abduct children, a clown costume is perhaps the worst possible disguise because they attract attention – especially in light of the warnings and publicity surrounding the sightings. Any clowns seen near schools, parks or children that are not part of a private party, parade or circus are certain to draw notice and attention.

Most of the scary clown sightings are innocuous, such as a person wearing a clown mask in public - perhaps not surprising given that Halloween is only a few weeks away. And, of course, just because a person is frightened by a person in a clown mask doesn't necessarily mean the clown had any evil intent.

But motivations become irrelevant in parents' eyes when it comes to children's welfare and many communities are understandably taking measures to ensure safety. Police have increased patrols to calm communities, whether the danger is real or not. Many of the clown reports were copycats of earlier sightings spurred by media coverage. Since creating a newsworthy creepy clown sighting is as easy as donning a mask and walking the streets, it's certain that the reports will continue.

Hoaxes have long been a part of history, from the ancient Greeks to modern day. In celebration of April Fool's Day, count down with us some of the greatest moments of trickery known to man.

The Trojan Horse

Whether you believe the tale Virgil tells in "The Aenied" is fact or fiction, the Trojan Horse still stands as one of the greatest hoaxes known to history, real or literary. Legend has it that the Greeks, in a longstanding war against the Trojans, built a giant (and hollow) wooden horse and presented it to their rivals. After the Trojans willingly brought the peace offering into their fortified city, an army of Greeks burst out of the statue and effectively crushed the opposition, using what’s now considered to be one of the oldest tricks in the book.

"The War of the Worlds" Broadcast

On Halloween night, 1938, a radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ 1898 science fiction novel "The War of the Worlds" had people convinced that aliens were invading the United States. The broadcast was orchestrated by the famous Orson Welles (pictured above, answering questions from the press the following day). Much of the show was in an “emergency bulletin” format. Those who tuned in mid-broadcast didn't recognize that they had stumbled upon a fictional show and instead thought they had tuned in just in time to hear emergency announcements that aliens were invading. Welles claimed he hadn't foreseen the hysteria. The event is still commemorated to this day in Grover’s Mill, N.J. (home to the “invasion”) by a stone monument.

The Piltdown Man

The Piltdown Man is literally the definition of hoax. In 1912, Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward unearthed a strange set of fossils in Sussex, England. These fragments would be pieced together to form the "Piltdown Man" skull and were famously hailed as proof of the "missing link" between humans and apes, according to the British Natural History Museum, which uses the incident as a prime example of "bad science." It would take 40 years, and the invention of better scientific dating, for the skull to be revealed as a fake. To this day, no one (or no group of individuals) has been identified as the mastermind behind the Piltdown Man hoax, although there have been theories.

U-505

In the midst of WWII, on June 4, 1944, the U.S. Navy captured the German submarine U-505 and kept it and its surviving crew members a secret. The Allied forces hoped to use the materials and code books found aboard the sub against the Nazis without the opposition knowing they had an upper hand. And it worked. U-505 was towed to Bermuda. The 58 Nazi soldiers captured during the raid were kept in relative isolation and not allowed to send letters from their imprisonment. The German army considered them dead, even sending notice to their families, according to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, where the submarine currently is on exhibit to the public. The survivors were eventually released at the end of the war.

Balloon Boy

Perhaps once of history's most recent hoaxes, the plight of a young boy, Falcon Heene, supposedly launched (accidentally of course) into the Colorado skies in his family's UFO-like balloon, captured widespread media attention on Oct. 15, 2009. Heene would later be found safe and sound, hiding in his family's home. In a news interview the next day, young Falcon Heene would also accidentally mention it "was for the show," revealing the hoax. His parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, admitted to orchestrating the entire incident for the publicity. They were fined and had to serve jail time.