CHICAGO — Creepy clown scares around the country have led to guns being drawn, Ronald McDonald laying low and Target scaling back its clown gear.
With Halloween on Monday, there's sure to be clowns on the town; one Chicago costume store reports an uptick in clown requests, in fact.
Chicago Police aren't banning clown costumes — as other towns have done — instead issuing a statement saying: "CPD discourages dressing up and engaging in illegal activity and/or threatening behavior, while in costume, not clown specific."
Creepy clowns have been in the news for weeks around the U.S., scaring children and getting attention from local police and school administrators. Despite the focus, some say the story is an old one that is being fanned by social media and that there have always been “bad” or “creepy” clowns.
Greg DeSanto, executive director of the International Clown Hall of Fame in Baraboo, Wisconsin, attributed most of the current creepy clown fear to teenage pranksters.
“This doesn’t really apply to professional clowns. Most of the [creepy clowns] seem to be teenagers wearing masks who are pulling pranks,” DeSanto said. “It does reflect poorly on professional clowns though because most people do not make that distinction.”
DeSanto noted that some kids are also afraid of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and said “certainly Halloween and social media has fanned it.”
Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer Magazine and author of the book “Bad Clowns,” pointed out that there have been creepy clowns for as long as there have been clowns.
“People always think of clowns as being happy and fun, but clowns were not always good. It’s just like any other group, some were good and some were bad,” Radford said.
“What’s happened over the last six or seven weeks is that people are being reminded of the other side of the clown character.”
According to Dominique Jando — an internationally renowned circus historian, former performer and current curator of Circopedia, an online encyclopedia of sorts with the goal of “helping the public better understand and appreciate circus as a global artistic and cultural phenomenon" — creepy clowns are not clowns at all.
"The thing is, what you have to understand is that it comes from an American concept of clowns which is false,” Jando said. “The idea that to be a clown you put on makeup, a wig and big shoes and you are a clown is incorrect. The concept for clowns for Americans is more of an image than for people in China or in Europe where clowns actually have talent as entertainers and as comedians.”
Jando, who was originally from France, came to the U.S. more than 20 years ago and ran the Big Apple Circus in Brooklyn, New York, added that “It’s a question of what is a clown. Obviously those people are not clowns. Having the makeup on doesn’t make one a clown.” He also noted that some children have been afraid of traditional clowns, agreeing with DeSanto’s comparison to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
“Children will be afraid of clowns as they have been before, but clowns are not necessarily for children. Clowns come from the theater, not from the circus.”
Hundreds of Years of Creepy Clowns
The 1892 opera Pagliacci feature a killer clown named Canjo. [Shutterstock]
Whether one agrees with Jando’s definition of what a clown is may be an separate argument, but bad or creepy clowns have been around for ages. One of the earliest bad clown characters was in Charles Dicken’s “The Pickwick Papers,” written in 1836-7. In it, Dickens described a clown as an emancipated alcoholic with a “bloated body and shrunken legs” and a “hideous and unnatural appearance.”
Pagliacci, an Italian opera from 1892, featured a killer clown by the name of Canio who fatally stabs his wife and her lover.
More recently, scary or creepy clowns have popped up in pop culture from The Joker in Batman to heavy metal band Insane Clown Posse; “Pennywise” from Stephen King’s novel “IT” and in a number of other horror movies.
Perhaps the most famous scary clown wasn’t fictional and is well known to most Chicagoans: serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who moonlighted as “Pogo The Clown.”
“Gacy is the world’s best-known real life bad clown, although he certainly wasn’t the first. But his connection to clowning isn’t as strong as people think. He was a serial killer but it’s not like he killed people while dressed as a clown,” Radford said.
“I think social media is playing a huge role in it. Most of what we are seeing today are copycats. You’re seeing people who see scary clown videos on YouTube or photos on Instagram and then some are encouraged to copy it. The vast majority are pranks and copycats and hoaxers, and there have been hoaxes on both sides. You have people who really aren’t clowns, mostly teenagers who are dressing up to scare people, but you also have people who are faking seeing clowns for attention,” Radford said.
Businesses Cut Back
Ronald McDonald has cut down on appearances. [Shutterstock]
Creepy clown hysteria has caused some businesses to rethink things.
Last week, retailer Target announced that it would be reducing the amount of clown masks it sells for Halloween. Oak Brook-based McDonald’s Corp. said in light of recent events, it plans to scale back appearances of Ronald McDonald. In a statement, the corporation said it was being “thoughtful in respect to Ronald McDonald’s participation in community events” as a result of the “current climate around clown sightings in communities.”
Even Stephen King, creator of Pennywise, one of the world’s most creepy clowns in his novel “IT,” took to Twitter October 3 to encourage pranksters to tone down their actions. He tweeted, “Hey, guys, time to cool the clown hysteria — most of 'em are good, cheer up the kiddies, make people laugh.”
Mireille Page, who performed as “Twinkles the Classy Clown” from 2002 until 2011, gave it up because of creepy clown hysteria. Page, who is from suburban St. Charles, said she quit because of what she described as “unnecessarily scared people.” She said there often would be a child that was scared but that she’d take a few minutes to sit with them to alleviate their fear. She said the problem she faced was from adults who “acted like morons” and eventually got more work doing balloon sculptures and face painting instead of performing as a clown. She added that several professional clowns that she knows are currently suffering because of the creepy clown hysteria.
“I have a lot of clown friends who are really being hurt, receiving harassing phone calls and things like that,” Page said.
A man pointed a gun at someone dressed a clown in Chicago earlier this fall.
The manager of Cupcake Family Fun, a website that subcontracts party entertainers in Chicagoland, Northwest Indiana and Southern Wisconsin said that there has been a lot less demand for clowns lately. The manager, Jackie, who did not want to use her last name, said that she “thinks it’s kind of crazy” and added that “It’s been happening with this generation of parents.”
On the flip side, Chicago Halloween superstore Fantasy Costumes in Portage Park has benefited from the clown hysteria. Manager Cathy Bunger said sales of clown costumes were “up a bit” but added that store employees advise customers not to wear clown masks on the street. “We tell them to put them on when they get to the Halloween party.”
Daniel Berg, an 11-year-old sixth grader at the James Giles School in Norridge, said that “all the kids are talking about the clowns but no one has seen one. Everyone at my school is afraid of them.” He added that if he saw one that he “would probably freak out and run.”
In Park Ridge, police responded to an October 6 call of middle-school aged girls wearing clown masks and waving at passing cars, according to Deputy Chief of Police Louis Jogmen. Noting that it wasn’t illegal activity, Jogmen said his officers “discussed the potential issues that they may cause with the girls and their parents and they stopped.”
In Chicago, many threats were received but none were deemed credible, according to Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Emily Bittner. In a statement, Bittner said ““Like many other school districts around the country, CPS has received reports of threats involving clowns. CPS takes these threats seriously and investigates them thoroughly in partnership with the Chicago Police Department. None of the threats have been deemed credible.”
A spokesman for the Chicago Police blamed the current situation on social media and described it as widespread. “This fad originated on social media and is taking place in cities across the country. ... Any and all individuals who engage in illegal or threatening behavior will be held accountable for their actions and citizens should call 911 should they have personal safety concerns. As of now, we are not aware of any arrests in Chicago due to these incidents.”
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