First there were the reports in Greenville County, South Carolina, of creepy clowns offering children money to come into the woods. There was also the mysterious late-night sighting of a clown waving under a streetlight.
That caused alarm and prompted police to increase patrols where the costumed figures had been spotted.
Now, two weeks later and 180 miles away, separate tales of clowns trying to lure children into wooded areas in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, have set off concerns in that city.
None of this sits well with clowns. Mike Becvar, a professional clown who goes by the name Sir Toony Van Dukes and who runs the website Just For Clowns, said anxiety about the incidents is being needlessly stoked by national news coverage.
“I wonder how the reporting on the story would go if instead of clowns, people were dressing up as aliens, witches, zombies or doctors?” he asked in an email. “What if they were wearing hospital scrubs, lab coats and a stethoscope around their neck. Would the news report that doctors were hiding in the woods trying to lure kids with candy?”
Nevertheless, police in two states are responding aggressively to reports of costumed strangers.
The Winston-Salem Police Department said officers responded to a call around 8:30 p.m. Sunday of a person dressed in a clown costume offering treats to children. The person was seen by two children and heard, but not seen, by an adult, according to a police report.
The report said the person, a man wearing white overalls, white gloves and red shoes, with red bushy hair, a white face and a red nose, fled once officers arrived.
About four hours later on a street two miles from the original call, police received another report of a person in a clown costume. Efforts to find the person in both instances were unsuccessful, but police said their investigation remains active.
“The Winston-Salem Police Department is aware that similar incidents have occurred recently in South Carolina and is taking this matter seriously,” the department said in a statement, adding that patrols would be increased in the area.
The panic has not abated. In nearby Greensboro, North Carolina, the local paper carried a report of a man with a machete who chased a clown into the woods Tuesday. Police could not locate the clown, described as having red curly hair, wearing a mask, a yellow dotted shirt and blue pants, according to The News & Record.
Meanwhile, in South Carolina, police in Greenville said they had responded to four clown sightings in late August. On Aug. 29, a boy reported that two people dressed as clowns were standing near an apartment complex. The next day, a woman called to say she saw two others close to a playground at the complex, police said.
On Aug. 31, a boy spotted a person dressed in black, wearing a clown mask and walking toward the backyard of a home. On the same day, a 45-year-old woman said that a middle-age man, wearing clownlike face makeup and red hair, “was standing outside the laundromat, and stared at her as she exited,” the report said.
Police were unable to locate the people in the costumes. They said there had been no indication that anyone had attempted to contact or lure children into the woods in those cases.
The sightings prompted the city police chief, Ken Miller, to issue a warning, The Greenville News reported.
At a news conference, the chief said: “It’s illegal. It’s dangerous. It’s inappropriate, and it’s creating community concern so it needs to stop,” according to The News.
The reports in the city came more than a week after two sightings in Greenville County that the sheriff’s office is investigating.
Given that no actual clowns have been located, could this all be public hysteria? It is entirely possible. David Myers, a professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, said fears can spread as people’s thoughts and feelings feed one another.
“Sometimes this can create a ‘mass hysteria' as perceived problems, such as presumed rashes, spread throughout a population,” he said.
It is a fad to describe clowns as scary, Becvar said, which he and his fellow clowns find vexing.
He said professional clowns work hard to protect their image as being “family friendly.” They are trained to interact in a positive way with children without frightening them, he said.
“I am not sure if you have ever been to the mall after Thanksgiving and watched the kids’ reaction to being placed on Santa’s lap,” he wrote. “There will be some kids who cry and scream. Should we all assume that Santa is scary, too?”