There’s a chill in the air, Halloween is approaching, and America finds itself besieged on all sides by reports of evil clowns. The clowns first appeared in August in South Carolina, when children started telling police that a group of clowns had offered them money to accompany them to their home deep in the forest. Over the course of September, clown sightings have sprung up in multiple states, leading to arrests, dubious official warnings, and a flurry of media reports crying hoax or mass hysteria. Most of these reports treat the wave of evil clown sightings as a new development, spread by social media–crazy millennials.
But a careful look at the public record reveals a startling truth: There’s nothing new about America’s love affair with terrifying clowns trying to lure our children away. Consider just a few of the clown encounters reported over the past 35 years, which I just looked up today while researching this article and are definitely not written out by hand in a notebook labeled “CLOWN INFESTATION: THE SECRET HISTORY” at the bottom of my desk drawer, so I don’t know where you even got that idea:
May 1981, Brookline, Massachusetts: America’s decades of clown sorrow begin at Lawrence Elementary when children report two clowns driving a black van offering them candy. School principals are warned about the clown threat, leading to a rash of reported sightings across Boston. No clowns are ever found.
May 1981, Kansas City, Missouri: A few days after the Brookline incidents begin, police in Kansas City receive multiple reports of a knife-wielding clown in a yellow van. Parents of children attending Our Lady & St. Rose school are informed of the situation via a letter from school administrators reading, in part, “There have been reports of a character called Killer Clown jumping out of bushes and threatening children with a knife.”
June 1981: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Reports of “menacing clowns” begin in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh police are the first to draw a connection between the clown sightings—which occurred in black neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and Kansas City—and the Atlanta Child Murders the summer before, which also targeted black children. However, the Boston-area clowns were sighted mostly in white neighborhoods.
March 1988, Louisville, Kentucky: Across a three-county area, children suddenly begin calling police with stories of a malevolent clown offering rides in a red pickup truck, and, in one case, pursuing a child on foot. No arrests are made and the pickup truck–driving clown vanishes without a trace.
Oct. 1991, Erie, Pennsylvania: More than 40 children (and some of their parents) report a clown prowling area backyards and looking through windows. A local bank is robbed by a man in a clown suit, but police dismiss him as “a copycat clown” once he is apprehended. The original clown gets away clean.
Oct. 1991, Chicago: As things in Erie get eerie, the Chicago police are also overwhelmed with reports from local schoolchildren of a man dressed as Homey D. Clown from In Living Color, offering them candy to ride in his van. Children variously report the van to be blue, white, or red but agree that it has the words, “Ha-ha” painted on the side. An eighth-grader claims to have punched the clown in the nose. At least one elementary school sends a letter home to parents warning them about the clown epidemic; another schedules more patrols of the school grounds. Several weeks later, in Elgin, an adult reports seeing a clown abduct a girl. By this point, “suspicious clowns” have been reported to police in Evanston and Joliet, too. Total number of clowns behind bars at the end of this clown spree: no clowns.
Sept. 1992, Rock Hill, South Carolina: A wave of clown sightings comes to an end when four teenage boys are arrested for dressing as clowns and terrorizing local children. The boys aren’t charged, as authorities cannot find a law they broke. At the subdivision that is the epicenter of the clown appearances, one resident has put a hand-painted sign reading “Mr. Clown, We Are All Watching You.”
Oct. 1992, Galveston, Texas: The police and local news outlets are flooded with calls about an evil clown after a small girl reports that a clown attempted to kidnap her. This time, the clown is sighted almost exclusively near schools. Police downplay the veracity of the reports after their investigations lead to the capture of exactly zero clowns.
June 1994, Washington, D.C.: In the Seventh District, police receive multiple reports of a clown trying to lure children into his van. They decline to investigate. By November, the lack of police attention to this case—as well as the disappearance of a small boy in the neighborhood—is held up by local activists as examples of police ignoring or disbelieving crimes reported by black citizens.
Aug. 1997, South Brunswick, New Jersey: Six clown incidents occur in South Brunswick and Howell in a matter of weeks. Local children report a clown leaping from behind trees outside local housing projects then laughing maniacally. Police step up patrols in the area but claim the sightings are unrelated. In late August, a man who, according to police, did not have “an adult’s mental capacity” is identified as the clown and sent for psychiatric evaluation. The man offers no explanation for his actions.
Oct. 2008, Chicago: Exactly 17 years after the Homie D. Clown incidents, Chicago is again visited by a mysterious child-luring clown. The story is ignored by the newspapers, but the local news lets parents know about the police alert warning of a clown driving “a white or brown van.”
Oct. 2014, Fishers, Indiana: A local resident manages to take a picture of a creepy clown that starts appearing around town. The clown does not have a van for once but is holding balloons.
Aug. 2016, Greenville, South Carolina: The current wave of clown sightings begins.
Since stories of evil clowns terrorizing children are often met with skepticism—I assume—I offer a partial bibliography. If you have a free wall in your apartment, you’ll probably want to get copies of these and thumbtack them to a giant map of the United States, just to get the full picture:
“Pupils Warned of Clowns,” Boston Globe, May 7, 1981
“ ‘Killer Clown’ Menaces Schoolchildren,” Arizona Republic, May 23, 1981
“ ‘Clown’ is Sought in Kansas, Missouri,” St. Louis Post Dispatch, May 24, 1981
“Police Find Reports of Clowns Not Funny,” the Courier-Journal, March 18, 1988
“Too Much Clowning Around,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Oct. 5, 1991
“Police Taking Clown Sightings Seriously,” Chicago Tribune, Oct. 11, 1991
“Police Aren’t Laughing at These Clowns,” Northwest Herald, Oct. 21, 1991
“Teen-agers Play Clown Prank,” Greenwood Index-Journal, Sept. 4, 1992
“Clown Calls Pour In,” Galveston Daily News, Oct. 30, 1992
“Clown No Laughing Matter,” Afro-American Red Star, June 11, 1994
“Police Doubt Link Between Clown Sightings,” Asbury Park Press, Aug. 21, 1997
“Howell Police Say Mystery of Clown Solved,” Asbury Park Press, Aug. 28, 1997
“ ‘Creepy Clown’ Creates a Stir,” Indianapolis Star, Oct. 18, 2014
And those are only the incidents that made the papers! Now, apropos of nothing, here are a few facts about Pennywise the Clown, an ostensibly fictional creature who preys on children, as described in Stephen King’s novel It:
- FACT: Pennywise emerges roughly every 27 years to go on a rampage in the (fictional) town of Derry, Maine. So Pennywise appearances come in waves—much like the 1981, 1991, and 2016 clusters of evil clown sightings.
- FACT: Although Pennywise can be seen by some adults, for the most part he targets children. Similarly, very few adults have reported seeing evil clowns, but many children have. This is just what you’d expect if a Pennywise—or even several Pennywises—were on the loose.
- FACT: Residents and officials of Derry downplay reports of clown sightings and generally find a scapegoat each time Pennywise appears—in one case, a teenager. Sounds an awful lot like those poor teenagers in Rock Hill, doesn’t it?
- FACT: Rather than train an elite clown-fighting brigade, the Derry police department attempts to battle Pennywise through flyers warning children about a curfew. Notice anything familiar about this flyer from Greenwood, South Carolina?
- FACT: Pennywise often carries a bunch of balloons—just like the clown in Fishers, Indiana.
- FACT: Upon rereading It, you may notice that many of the “voices” that character Richie Tozier becomes famous for turn out to be super-duper racist.
- FACT: It was published in Sept. 1986, after the first wave of clown sightings. The law of causality scientifically proves that Stephen King’s book can’t have caused the wave of evil clowns in 1981. However, it is possible that the evil clowns—or people trying to warn us about the evil clowns—caused It to be written.
We’re just reporting the facts here; Slate readers will have to draw their own conclusions. It’s certainly possible that an alarming number of American cities don’t have evil clowns living deep beneath their sewers and that this is all a case of mass hysteria. Maybe it’s the kind of thing that gets passed between schoolchildren, and is basically harmless before their parents overreact to it. And maybe in 2018 or 2020, kids will start reporting clown sightings again, and it won’t be any more real than it is today. But here’s the question the mainstream media isn’t asking: Isn’t that exactly what the evil clowns living deep beneath our sewers would want you to think?