Earth & Conservation

Creepy Clowns Scare Up Clicks and Controversy

Two recent reports of creepy clowns have circulated on social media -- and more are on the way.

As if there weren't enough actual scary things going on in the world, creepy clowns have recently been reported in Wisconsin and Canada.

First came Gags, a menacing masked clown seen and photographed at night holding four black balloons earlier this month in Green Bay. It caused quite a stir locally, with local residents wondering what was going on -- and if they should be afraid. Police were alerted but powerless to stem the suspicious silliness, since no laws had been broken.

A Facebook page was set up where photos of the clown were widely shared. The photos turned out to be part of a viral marketing campaign for a short film about a scary clown. The secret was finally exposed when an actor who had auditioned for a part in the film blew the whistle on the project, fearing that the public concern had gotten out of hand. The filmmaker eventually admitted his role in the event while expressing delight at how successful the stunt was at generating headlines around the world -- the first photos of Gags were shared over 50,000 times.

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That clown scare was barely over when yet another popped up -- this one across the border in Canada. A pair of clowns -- one dressed in a scary mask and the other in a clown costume -- terrified young children earlier this week in a Quebec park. According to a CBC report:

"A parent complained after two teens, one of whom was carrying a 2-meter-long chain, chased children home from Parc Limbour, in northwest Gatineau, on Monday.

Caroline Saint-Pierre's 11-year-old daughter was in the park with a group of friends, including a 5-year-old, when the incident happened. 'The clowns followed them through the park and when the kids started to run, they ran after them,' she said."

At least one of the clowns posed for photos, likely anticipating the reaction. Since no crime occurred, Gatineau police declined to arrest the pair, but cautioned the boy and girl that such pranks could escalate into violence if a parent believed their child was threatened.

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Social media played an important role in both of these cases; a clown standing on an empty street corner is a pointless and pathetic sight. Clowns are performers by nature and need an audience; Facebook, Instagram and Twitter provide cheap and viral-friendly platforms for their pranks and performance art.

Pop Culture Scary Clowns

Why all the sudden interest in scary clowns? Though there seems to be no connection between the Quebec and Green Bay clowns, it's curious that they would occur within the past few weeks. Both are almost certainly copycats of earlier creepy clown reports from years past, including in two California towns in 2014 and in a Chicago cemetery one year ago last month.

Bad clowns in popular entertainment may have also inspired the incidents. Last month publicity photos from the upcoming remake of Stephen King's classic horror novel "It" were released, with actor Bill Skarsgard playing the evil Pennywise the Clown -- a character first portrayed by Tim Curry in the 1990 television miniseries. The new film "Suicide Squad" features the evil clown-like character Harley Quinn, part-time squeeze of the world's most famous bad clown The Joker (played in the film by Jared Leto). Though the reviews have been mixed -- with fans tending to like it more than critics -- the Harley Quinn character struck a chord among fans, with "Vanity Fair" calling her "the most divisive character in comic-book history."

Though scary clowns have always been with us, the phenomenon of people dressing up as clowns to scare people, usually at night, is fairly new. Usually it's done as a prank or a 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.

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Whether interest in Gags the Green Bay Clown translates into increased interest in the short film -- as the director hoped -- remains to be seen, but he isn't the first evil clown stunt dreamed up by budding filmmakers.

As I describe in my book "Bad Clowns," the first creepy clown to achieve international notoriety was the "Northampton Clown," a masked fiend who prowled the streets of Northampton, England, in October 2013. Like Gags, he didn't harass or threaten anyone but appeared just long enough to frighten and amuse people. The scary (yet photo-friendly) clown 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.

In March 2014 photos popped up on social media of a mysterious and menacing clown seen on Staten Island. Interest in that scary clown even drew the attention of Stephen King, who issued a tongue-in-cheek tweet asking if he should be getting royalties. The "SI Clown" was eventually revealed to be a publicity stunt for a Staten Island-based horror film production company.

While the antics of these two recent clowns have come to an end -- with the threat of arrest in one case and the exposure of a publicity prank in the other -- it's clear we haven't seen the last of these creepy clowns. After all, Halloween is just over two months away.

RELATED: How Did Clowns Become Creepy?