Clowns! (Photo: Frank Behrens/CC BY-SA 2.0)

As everyone who cares about America is probably aware, clown hysteria has taken over the Carolinas. The big-shoed menaces are allegedly lurking in the woods near residences, offering candy and money to children. People are chasing the clowns into the woods with machetes and leaning hard on their 911 autodials. At least one apartment complex has issued an official anti-clown warning. It’s gotten so bad that police are discouraging people in those areas from dressing as clowns at all.

Why clowns? Why now? What’s going to happen next? Atlas Obscura spoke with cryptozoologist Loren Coleman—perhaps the world’s foremost authority on mysterious clowns—about this latest outbreak. Spoiler: he blames old wounds, sad journalists, and “the real clown,” Donald Trump.

Recent years have brought us various sudden clowns, most of which have eventually revealed themselves to be pranks, marketing stunts, or strange journeys of self-discovery. Many news reports have cited these incidents as predecessors to the latest wave. But to truly understand this new group, Coleman says, we have to look a little further back—specifically to 1981, when a similar clown epidemic overtook Boston.

Clown dolls, potentially open-mouthed at their new reputation.

Clown dolls, potentially open-mouthed at their new reputation. (Photo: Commander Keane/CC BY-SA 3.0)

On May 6th of that year, police received a report that “one or two men wearing clown outfits” were driving a candy-laden van around near Brookline’s Longwood School. (The van even had a broken headlight, for maximum punchbuggy-style kid attraction.) The next day, a similar report came from the Franklin Park horseshoe-playing grounds—though this man reportedly had only half a clown suit on, as he was naked from the waist down. According to a Boston Globe article entitled “Pupils Warned of Clowns,” the school district’s investigative councilor quickly issued a memo, instructing students to “stay away from strangers, especially ones dressed as clowns.”

At the time, Coleman was heading up a social services office in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He was also corresponding with a number of fellow cryptozoology fans—nearly 400 of them, spread out across the country. He coined the term “phantom clown,” and asked his network to send him any local newspaper clippings that referred to similar incidents. “I started getting copies from Cleveland, from both Kansas Cities,” he says. “I really started tracking that this was a nationwide phenomenon.” 

Photographer Shawn Tron says this clown is frowning because "the bus driver wouldn't stop for him."

Photographer Shawn Tron says this clown is frowning because “the bus driver wouldn’t stop for him.” (Photo: Shawn Tron/CC BY-SA 2.0)

This information enabled him to draw up a sort of Theory of the Phantom Clown. “Phantom clowns are usually very specific,” says Coleman. “There’s a clown, often seen in a van, kids being approached and telling adults, and then the clowns never being caught. When [the Carolina incidents] started up, it linked back to all those old stories for me.”

So where do phantom clowns come from? In 1981, Boston eventually settled on “the minds of children.” A follow-up Globe article, released two days after the first, recasts the alleged perpetrators as victims and vice-versa. After introducing us to a persecuted Stoughton clown, wrongly questioned by police on his way to deliver a perfectly innocent clown-a-gram, the authors quote numerous officers flummoxed by the clowndemonium. “We’ve had over 20 calls on 911, [but] no adult civilian or police officer has ever seen a clown,” says one. “If it’s someone’s idea of a joke, it’s a sick joke,” says another.

A similar story in Chicago, from 1991, reached the same conclusion. “The reports, mainly from children, have varied,” the Chicago Tribune wrote, after several alleged sightings of a van clown named Homey. “They seem to be reaching near-mythic proportions, tumbling out from different parts of the city like clowns falling out of a Volkswagen.”

It’s the same kind of situation in the Carolinas—so far, the police haven’t seen even one clown. But people are afraid just the same, and Coleman points out that some of this fear may be grounded in community memory. Fifty years ago this summer, the same area of North Carolina that’s now being stalked by clowns dealt with an actual nightmare criminal—a man nicknamed The Paddler, who would dress up as a policeman, kidnap young boys, paddle them in the back of his car, and then let them go. He was eventually caught—but after serving ten years of jail time, he went straight back to his old habits, and ended up killing two teenagers.

“That turned out to be real—a real man was doing that,” says Coleman. “So I think to some extent, even though the phantom clowns are shrugged off… people are very scared that there might actually be real clowns out there that could harm children.”

This real concern leads to real warnings, which lead to real media reports—which, Coleman says, leads to more clowns. Coleman is also the author of The Copycat Effect, an exploration of how media coverage affects trends. “Suicide clusters, school shootings, terrorist attacks and phantom clowns are all driven from one incident to another by the media reporting on them,” he says.

This phenomenon gets worse when news is bad, he says—say, in election years, which tend to correspond with phantom clown surges (there was another in Chicago in 2008). “The media concentrates on campaigning so much, if any incidental story comes along, it becomes wall to wall news, almost as if they need a distraction from the ugliness,” he says. In this case, he thinks one specific candidate has had newsmakers looking for anything else to write about: “Trump is the real clown,” he says. (Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)

Much of this is definitely conjecture. But the predictions that come out of it are probably worth heeding. “I do expect that if it keeps being talked about in the media, you’re going to see [clowns] jumping up in California, Wisconsin, other places,” Coleman says. Sorry about this, Northwest.