‘Creepy clowns’ have the nice ones on edge

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan Pitts

It’s nor­mally Jor­dan Jones’ job to frighten peo­ple this time of year. The pro­fes­sional clown, a fix­ture at Scream­land Farms in Fred­er­ick, has been pol­ish­ing his craft for a decade. Nowit’s his turn to be the tar­get of scares. Jones, who works each Hal­loween as Snug­gles the Clown, was pos­ing for a picture by the side of the road in ru­ral Penn­syl­va­nia re­cently when sev­eral peo­ple in a pass­ing car shouted out threats to kill him.

He aborted the shoot — and still hasn’t got­ten over the fright.

“The whole ‘creepy clown’ thing has got­ten out of con­trol,” Jones says. “I can’t be­lieve what’s hap­pen­ing to clowns.”

The cur­rent ma­nia ap­pears to have started in early Au­gust, when re­ports be­gan to emerge out of Greenville, S.C., that peo­ple dressed as clowns were try­ing to lure chil­dren into the woods.

Clown sight­ings fol­lowed in Mary­land and more than 40 other states. Pic­tures and video of scary clowns swept the in­ter­net. And a craze that many wrote off as a string of hoaxes be­gan having real-life con­se­quences.

School dis­tricts in Con­necti­cut, New Jersey and California banned clown cos­tumes for Hal­loween. Tar­get pulled mer­chan­dise from shelves. Po­lice have made ar­rests in more than 20 states, in­clud­ing Mary­land, for clown-re­lated threats and crimes re­port­edly com­mit­ted by peo­ple in clown masks.

As Hal­loween ap­proaches, the hys­te­ria has spread as far as New Zealand and Ger­many, and its per­sis­tence in the United States is send­ing frostier-than-usual chills down sea­sonal spines.

“When you look at the his­tory of th­ese pan­ics, this is not the first one, but it’s by far the largest,” says Ben­jamin Rad­ford, whose book “Bad Clowns” was pub­lished in April. “It doesn’t sur­prise me that th­ese clown ru­mors would re­turn in the fall of 2016 in Amer­ica.

“There’s a lot of so­cial anx­i­ety go­ing around. There are height­ened fears over rare but real is­sues like school shoot­ings or ter­ror at­tacks. We’re in the mid­dle of a con­tentious elec­tion. It may seem more plau­si­ble than usual that some nutjob could show up some­place dressed as a clown and do some­thing he shouldn’t.” Clowns in­cite fear for many rea­sons. There’s the heavy face paint, a relic from the first cir­cuses in the late 1800s, ac­cord­ing to Michael Ros­man, a phys­i­cal co­me­dian from Bal­ti­more who at­tended the Rin­gling Bros. and Bar­num & Bai­ley Clown Col­lege.

In an era be­fore the­atri­cal light­ing, clowns wore heavy, ex­ag­ger­ated makeup so their ex­pres­sions could be read from afar.

But bring such faces in close, and they be­come grotesque. Their mask-like ap­pear­ance — or the ac­tual masks many clowns wear — sug­gests the wearer is hid­ing some­thing.

“Cover any­one’s face with a mask and have them ap­proach a 3- or 4-year-old, and they’ll be afraid, whether you’re talk­ing about a clown or Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny,” Ros­man says. “That’s part of the prob­lem.”

So is the in­her­ent am­bi­gu­ity of clowns — the ten­sion be­tween their ap­par­ent mirth and what amounts to our un­cer­tainty about their in­ten­tions.

Artists of the hor­ror genre have care­fully ex­ploited that ten­sion, from Lon Chaney’s 1924 si­lent movie “He Who Gets Slapped” through Stephen King’s 1986 novel “It” to Rob Zom­bie’s film “31,” re­leased this year.

A steady flow of movies has fed new evil-clown im­ages into the pub­lic’s emo­tional fur­nace, Rad­ford says, and a pend­ing film re­make of “It,” with its evil clown, Pennywise, is again stir­ring the em­bers.

“As part of pub­lic­ity, they al­ways re­lease pho­tos of the new scary clown,” he says. “And with a tense elec­tion cam­paign com­ing to an end, and Hal­loween on the way, the ef­fects are co­a­lesc­ing.” They’ve cer­tainly been felt in Mary­land. In one of the ear­li­est lo­cal in­ci­dents, four chil­dren re­ported to po­lice last month that they’d seen scary clowns in An­napo­lis. Po­lice later de­ter­mined the chil­dren had made the story up.

Un­nerved by the phe­nom­e­non, mem­bers of a Shriners clown group pulled out of a Hager­stown pa­rade.

Po­lice in Western Mary­land and Prince Ge­orge’s County have ar­rested sev­eral teenagers for al­legedly mak­ing clown­re­lated threats on the in­ter­net, and ru­mors spread that clowns planned to bomb a Brook­lyn Park mid­dle school.

But clowns them­selves are feel­ing threat­ened.

Ros­man doesn’t do the birth­day party cir­cuit, but he says many friends who do have lost busi­ness.

Edith Lere, who has per­formed as Sparkles the Clown for 20 years, says birth­day party and char­ity event op­por­tu­ni­ties have fallen off sharply this year, and long­time clients have asked her to make ap­pear­ances in street clothes.

“I un­der­stand why,” Lere says. “It just makes me sad that th­ese peo­ple out there, for what­ever rea­son they’re us­ing clown cos­tumes to scare chil­dren, are having this ef­fect. We need more clowns in this world, not less.”

So­cial me­dia is the “per­fect” plat­form for the creepy-clown phe­nom­e­non to take hold, ac­cord­ing to Michelle Sun Smith, the di­vi­sion direc­tor of psy­chol­ogy at Loy­ola Univer­sity Mary­land.

“I think that so­cial me­dia com­po­nent of it has given it even more of a life than other kinds of fears and threats,” Smith says. “The time of year, with Hal­loween around the cor­ner, in­ten­si­fies that.”

So­cial me­dia al­lows kids to “hide be­hind a fake pro­file and re­ally see how they can im­pact change,” Smith adds. “A school gets put on lock­down, and it teaches that teenager that they’re pretty pow­er­ful.”

Au­thor­i­ties say they are not get­ting caught up in the clown ma­nia. Po­lice in Bal­ti­more and sur­round­ing coun­ties say they’ve sent out no ad­vi­sories and are plan­ning no clown-re­lated pre­cau­tions for Hal­loween night, which is Mon­day.

Party City and Spirit Hal­loween, two of Mary­land’s top Hal­loween re­tail­ers, are keep­ing all their clown mer­chan­dise in stock. Party City of­fers an Adult Cir­cus Psy­cho Clown en­sem­ble; Spirit Hal­loween sells the ever-pop­u­lar Bleed­ing Killer Clown cos­tume.

And some fright venues say they’ve cho­sen to stick with their clown-re­lated acts.

At Kim’s Krypt Haunted Mill in Spring Grove, Pa., owner Kim Yates is em­ploy­ing her cus­tom­ary 20 or so clowns, in­clud­ing star per­form­ers Cookie and Trixie.

Cookie wears a mask that ap­pears to re­veal a patch of ex­posed brains. He and Trixie wan­der the grounds scar­ing pa­trons.

“We do re­as­sure our cus­tomers that we’re ac­tors, not the real thing,” Yates says. “You’d be sur­prised how many peo­ple for­get.”

Matt Par­rish, who di­rects clown scenes at Scream­land Farms, says pa­trons have turned their anx­i­eties on clowns, taunt­ing them at times even as they’re per­form­ing.

Jones felt so threat­ened by neg­a­tive mes­sages on so­cial me­dia that he had a friend pho­to­graph him, in Snug­gles cos­tume, hold­ing up a sign that read “Clown Lives Mat­ter.”

The im­age went vi­ral and helped Jones score in­ter­views with Time mag­a­zine­and the Hol­ly­wood Re­porter. A Clown Lives Mat­ter Face­book group now has nearly 2,000 mem­bers, and in­ter­views in­volv­ing Jones have notched mil­lions of hits.

This sea­son, he’s tak­ing part in a new sce­nario at Scream­land in which clowns emerge from the woods one by one and menace a hayride.

It has taken a lot of work to get the moves down, he says, and he’s proud of the screams it gets.

As Hal­loween draws near, he hopes it will send a mes­sage.

“Clown­ing en­ter­tains and brings joy,” he says. “We shouldn’t let a few messed-up adults ruin it. Noone should be afraid to be a clown.”


Spirit Hal­loween, one of the top re­tail­ers for the hol­i­day in Mary­land, is con­tin­u­ing to sell clown mer­chan­dise de­spite an on­go­ing na­tional — and in­ter­na­tional — hys­te­ria about “creepy clowns” that threaten vi­o­lence and un­nerve the pub­lic.

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