Previously: Witch Bottles.
In the late summer of 2016, something unnerving arrived in Greenville, South Carolina. It was shaped like a clown, but it… didn’t seem like a clown. In fact, it seemed like a trap — a trick to lure children into deserted areas for… well, no one really wanted to think for what. But soon, it became apparent that the Greenville clown wasn’t the only creepy clown on the prowl. In fact, that clown turned out to be just the first in a rash of alleged clown sightings to plague the final months of 2016 — and not just across the United States, either. The clown sightings of 2016 stretched across the entire world.
At first, folks weren’t sure what to make of the sightings; after all, an earlier sighting of a spooky clown roaming the streets of Green Bay, Wis. a few weeks before Greenville’s clown appeared turned out to be a hoax — a piece of viral advertising meant to draw attention to an upcoming short film about killer clown named Gags. (The short film was later expanded upon in a full-length feature, 2019’s similarly-titled Gags.) But as other reports began first to trickle in, and then to flood police stations, news outlets, and social media in towns and cities across the globe, the fear of these phantom clowns steadily rose. What did they want? Was it a coordinated effort? Were they just having a laugh, or was there something more menacing at play? Did parents really have to worry that their children would be snatched up by sinister clowns, never to be seen again?
[Like what you read? Check out Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, available from Chronicle Books now!]
By the end of 2016, sightings of “phantom clowns,” as they’re sometimes known, had been reported in 48 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia — and in a further 18 countries around the world.
Interest eventually waned in the phantom clowns, and eventually the sightings died out. But here’s the weirdest part of the whole thing: No one can agree on whether the alleged clown sightings actually happened, or whether they were a hoax.
There are arguments to be made for both stances, although from where I’m sitting, it’s likely a bit of both: I’d be willing to bet that there may actually have been a few odd sightings, but that there’s also a high probability that the story itself quickly became overblown, with the panic over the mere possibility of creepy clowns stalking the streets dramatically outstripping the actual number of creepy clowns stalking the streets.
This kind of fear mongering and mass panic rears its head more often than you might think; heck, we’ve seen it more than once extremely recently, including during the freak-outs over both the “Momo Challenge” (in all of its forms) and the “Blue Whale Challenge.”
Of course, it’s also possible that there actually was a growing number of clown sightings during the fall of 2016 — but rather than being the work of kidnappers or serial killers or what have you, it started as just a handful of folks pulling a fast one on their local community and eventually attracted an ever-growing number of copycats who saw the phenomenon go viral and wanted to participate in it themselves.
Interestingly, 2016 wasn’t the first time that rumors of phantom clowns haunting various towns and cities circulated wildly. It seems to happen every few years — or least, it’s happened every few years since 1981. This, I would argue, is another point in support of the 2016 sightings being more of an example of an urban legend running amok than a literal case of evil clowns taking to the streets; like any good urban legend, each time the rumors appear, the basic shape of the story is the same. (More on that in one of the sources below.) What’s more, each instance of alleged clown sightings garnered a not-insignificant amount of news coverage — which, again, is common for urban legends. (See also: Momo, again.)
Either way, though, the 2016 incidents remain an intriguing unsolved mystery: So much about them was never solved — and probably never will be.
The Wikipedia page on the 2016 clown sightings actually is quite detailed and generally well sourced), so I’m going to recommend that you start there; then, once you’ve got that under your belt, you can hit up my list of further reading, which is lighter on the news coverage of specific sightings from the time and more focused on auxiliary sources — bigger picture stuff, including more about the history of spooky clown sightings in the United States, background and history regarding the evil clown archetype, and more. There are also a whole lot of terrific and fascinating movies out there if you’re interested in examining things like this from a folkloric perspective (it’s me, I’m talking about me), so, y’know… have at.
Just… maybe stay away from the storm drains, okay? Better safe than sorry.
“Creepy Details Released In South Carolina Clown Sightings” by Graham Kates for CBS News. The Greenville sightings in South Carolina are generally cited as the first of the incidents in the United States, so for the curious, here’s a look at some of the details surrounding these sightings.
Described in the initial police report as a “suspicious character… dressed in circus clown attire and white face paint,” the clown was said to be “enticing kids to follow [them] into the woods.” According to one mother, her younger child had “seen clowns in the woods whispering and making strange noises” sometime around 8:30pm, while her older child reported the sound of “chains and banging on the front door” of their home. Meanwhile, an additional woman living in the same apartment complex reported seeing “a large-figured clown with a blinking nose, standing under a post light near the garbage dumpster area around 2:30am. The clown didn’t approach her; in fact, it seemed… well, maybe not friendly, but not necessarily dangerous. The woman waved at the clown, who waved back — and that was the extent of the interaction.
It’s worth noting that the claims came largely from children; what’s more, as the piece notes, police at the time were unable to substantiate those claims. Does that mean the kids were lying? Not necessarily (although it’s certainly a possibility); however, kids do tend to interpret things a little more fancifully than adults do, so it’s a distinct possibility that the children making these claims saw something different than what they thought they did. More info here.
A (Mostly) Complete List Of Creepy Clown Sightings In The United States In 2016 at Heavy. Again, the Wikipedia page on the sightings actually does have a pretty comprehensive list, but if you’re interested in reading just a little more about each state, head over to Heavy for info not only about sightings, but also about arrests and other new stories related to the whole thing.
The Creepy Clown Sightings Of 2016: An FAQ at the Verge. And while we’re at it, over at the Verge, the 10 most frequently asked questions about the 2016 clown epidemic, answered — and debunked when necessary.
“What’s With All The Clowns Everywhere? 6 Legit Possibilities” by AJ Willingham for CNN. Piggybacking off of the Verge’s FAQ, here are six of the most likely possibilities for what was actually going on during the Great Clown Panic of 2016. One that hadn’t occurred to me until now is sort of tied up in the idea I proposed earlier about copycat clowns wanting to get in on the fun — but, more specifically, it might have been a social media trend, not unlike planking or the mannequin challenge.
“Northampton Solves the Mystery of The Creepy Clown” by Connor Simpson for The Atlantic. The immediate precursor to the 2016 clown sightings occurred in 2013 in the UK: For roughly a month in the fall of 2013, a creepy clown kept appearing in various places around Northampton in the UK. It was fairly obvious right from the get-go that this particular clown was just someone dressed up in a clown costume having a laugh; an interview the then-anonymous clown gave to the Northampton Chronicle and Echo in September of that year was laden with jokes referencing Stephen King’s IT.
But in October, the clown was finally unmasked: Collectively, it was the work of Alex Powell, Elliot Simpson, and Luke Ubanski, a trio of social media-savvy of filmmakers. The unearthing of a short mockumentary titled “The Local Clown,” which was written and directed by Powell and posted to his and Simpson’s shared YouTube channel, provided some early clues, and well… it all unraveled from there. All’s well that ends well, I guess.
A Brief History Of Evil Clown Sightings In The United States at Slate. The actual title of this piece by Matthew Dessem published at the height of the 2016 clown panic is “The Wave of Evil Clown Sightings Is Nothing to Worry About. It Happens Every Few Years!” At its heart, it’s humor writing more than reporting, concluding with a list of facts about Pennywise that, uh, line up more with the facts of the 2016 clown sightings than might feel comfortable — but it also includes a pretty solid history of all the similar incidents that have occurred in the United States since 1981. True, it doesn’t include any incidents from other countries (you won’t find the Northampton Clown here), but it’s a good Cliff Notes version of U.S.-based sightings to use as a springboard for further research, should you feel so inclined.
“In 1981, Clowns Allegedly Appeared Across Boston, Similar To Current Clown Panic” by Cara Giamo for Atlas Obscura. The 1981 sightings are particularly notable, as they’re generally believed to be the first modern clown sighting scare. Indeed, this rash of alleged sightings is what led to the coinage of the term “phantom clowns” — a phrase which comes to us courtesy of cryptozoologist Loren Coleman, who was really the first person to think and write critically about the whole thing (notably in the early ‘80s in Fate and in 1983 in Mysterious America). So when the 2016 clown panic was at its height, Cara Giamo talked to Coleman about it for Atlas Obscura. Because, I mean… why would you not go to the foremost expert on phantom clowns during the middle of an alleged epidemic of phantom clowns?
The 1981 sightings kicked up in the Boston area — specifically in Brookline, a town not too far away from the Massachusetts town in which I grew up — but soon spread to other states, including Missouri and Pennsylvania. They sort of set out what became the template of all phantom clown incidents to come: As Coleman put it, “Phantom clowns are usually very specific. There’s a clown, often seen in a van, kids being approached and telling adults, and then the clowns never being caught.” To Coleman, the South Carolina incidents filled that description perfectly — hence one of the arguments for why the 2016 sightings were nothing but a hoax.
Coleman is smart and has a lot to say on the matter, so head on over to Atlas Obscura for more.
Evil Clown at Wikipedia. Outside the 2016 incidents, the Wikipedia page on the evil clown trope more generally is kind of a trip all on its own. It discusses the possible roots of the killer clown archetype, highlighting early examples of the modern killer clown and real-life incidents that may have helped cement the image of clowns as evil, makes note of significant fictional clowns, and even goes into a bit of analysis in terms the archetype’s importance in our modern world. For further reading inspired by this Wikipedia page, check out Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Hop-Frog.”
Overview of coulrophobia at Healthline. There’s an actual word that refers to the fear of clowns: Coulrophobia. (You might already know that, but in case you didn’t… well, you do now.)
It’s worth noting that there’s no clear etymology for this word; per the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s been suggested that the “coulro-” bit derives from a Byzantine Greek word meaning “stilt-walker,” but there’s no actual evidence that this is the case — meaning that the element itself “may be of arbitrary origin.” Furthermore, coulrophobia isn’t an officially-recognized diagnosis in the current fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-5), although coulrophobia can generally be considered a “specific phobia,” or what the University of Pennsylvania’s Center For The Treatment And Study Of Anxiety describes as “an intense, persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, situation, or activity, or person” which is “usually… proportionally greater than the actual danger or threat.”
But all the same, lots and lots of people Do Not Do Clowns, under any circumstances. As Healthline’s primer on the fear points out, there’s a difference between “suffering from coulrophobia and getting spooked while watching a movie with a killer clown” — so if you think you might have a clown-related phobia, this might be a good place to start. It’s got some symptoms to pay attention to, some suggestions for possible treatment, and so on; if any of it sounds familiar, and you find your fear of clowns actually interferes with your daily life, it’s worth getting in touch with a mental health professional to help you sort through it all and put a treatment plan and coping mechanisms into place.
“The History And Psychology Of Clowns Being Scary” by Linda Rodriguez Robbie for Smithosonian Magazine. If you’re more interested in the historical side of what makes clowns scary, here’s a good read at Smithsonian Magazine’s website. Interestingly, Robbie posits that clowns didn’t start cheery and then become dark; she posits that clowns have always been dark. Historically, said David Kiser, then Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ director of talent, clowns have always “reflected a funhouse mirror back on society,” functioning as a figure who is “kind of grown up” and “always about fun,” but with much of that fun being “a bit of mischief.” Andrew McConnell Stott, who was at the time Dean of Undergraduate Education and a professor of English at SUNY Buffalo, then noted to Robbie that what brought the clown from mischief to straight-up evil is “how that darkness is manifest.” (Stott is now at the University of Southern California.)
This piece is a terrific long read, so do check it out. You can find it here.
Bad Clowns by Benjamin Radford. Want to know more about bad clowns from a folkloric perspective? Benjamin Radford — who is referenced as an expert in a lot of the news coverage of the 2016 sightings — literally wrote the book on the subject. Bad Clowns, which hit shelves just a few months before the Greenville sighting in August of 2016, traces the history of the evil clown trope from antiquity up through the present, covering everything from the clowns of the Italian theatrical form of commedia dell’arte to serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who performed as a party clown for children. According to Radford, his book is the first to examine “bad clowns as pop culture (and counter culture) icons,” making it “the definitive book on bad clowns.”
Bonus: On the page of his website dedicated to Bad Clowns, Radford also includes a list of the top 10 baddest bad clowns throughout history. Made up of both fictional clowns (Mr. Punch, Pennywise, etc.) and real ones (Pogo, aka Gacy’s clown alter-ego, etc.), the list includes both infamous and under-the-radar picks—and a whooooole lot of nightmares. Check it out here.
Killer Legends (2014), dir. Joshua Zeman. In a 2014 documentary originally shot for the now-defunct television channel Chiller, Killer Legends brings the team behind 2009’s Cropsey back together to dig into the roots of four widely-circulated urban legends: The Hookman, the old poison-in-your-Halloween-candy myth, the Babysitter and the Man Upstairs, and — of course — the legend of the killer clown.
What Killer Legends excels at isn’t necessarily solving the mystery of when or where these urban legends originally began, but at getting at the root of why we find them so believable — at the real fears behind the legends. And in the case of the killer clown segment, it underlines exactly how pervasive the idea of nefarious people stalking a community while dressed up as clowns is — and the fact that it isn’t a new fear. You see, Killer Legends was filmed long before the 2016 sightings. It focuses in large part on the 2008 sightings around Chicago — and also notes even then that these particular sightings were far from the first: A similar spate occurred in the Chicago area during the fall of 1991.
Killer Legends is currently available to stream for free via a number of services, including YouTube, Tubi, and Vudu. The phantom clown segment is the last one of the film; about 20 minutes in length, it starts just a few minutes past the one-hour mark. You skip directly to it here if you like, although I do recommend watching the whole documentary if you can.
Wrinkles The Clown (2019), dir. Michael Beach Winters. Wrinkles the Clown sort of coexisted with the 2016 clown panic, but he also stood apart from it — partially because he was around beforehand, and partially because he’s just a little bit different.
You can call him if you like.
He might even talk to you.
And if you pay him enough, he might even come to your house and scare your kids into behaving for you.
Wrinkles’ phone number first began circulating around 2014, and six years later, he’s now a fixture not only of the Naples, Fla. community he calls home, but also of internet culture. He goes viral periodically — but in 2019, a documentary about him gave viewers unprecedented access to his life.
…Or did it?
The documentary, which was released both in cinemas and as a video on demand offering in October of 2019, is fascinating — and it… doesn’t go where you probably think it will. It’s probably best viewed without reading any spoilers about it beforehand, but for the curious, here’s what I made of the whole thing; take a peek after you’ve seen the movie. It’s currently available to stream on Hulu, as well as to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu, and more.
Trailer for Behind The Sightings (20??), dir. Tony Cadwell. There’s also a movie in the works based directly off the 2016 clown sightings — or, rather, a movie that’s been completed, but hasn’t yet been released. Called Behind The Sightings, it was originally set to be released in October of 2017, but hasn’t actually made it out of the can as of this writing. A found footage flick, it’s meant to follow a pair of filmmakers who set out to get to the bottom of the clown sightings and wind up finding more than they’d reckoned they would.
To be honest, it looks… not great; what little acting I can see in it stretches the limits of believability — and given that its original release date was a mere year following the sightings themselves, it seems likely that production was rushed.
What’s more, we haven’t heard a peep from the filmmakers behind it for a few years now. October 2017 came and went with no release in sight, and although the director gave an interview to Dread Central in March of 2018 maintaining the fiction of the film (the “family of the victims” weren’t happy with the intended theatrical cut of the film and wouldn’t sign off on its release, Cadwell said, leading to a deadlock), there have been no updates on the situation since then.
You can still watch the trailer if you like, though. Maybe it’ll see the light of day… eventually.
In the meantime, Wrinkles is still only a phone call away — and there’s a whole world of other evil clowns for you to peruse in the meantime.
We all float down here, right?
[Photo via leo2014/Pixabay]