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."
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.
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.
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."
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.