By Dr. Abner Mality

In the last 20 years or so, the tide has really turned against clowns. Sure, there's always been an ominous undercurrent to the face-painted funnymen, but it used to be that when you thought of a clown, you thought of fun and laughter. Now people seem to put them one notch below masked terrorists as icons of fear.

Maybe there is good reason for such a feeling. And I'm not just talking about the onslaught of evil TV and movie clowns like Pennywise from Stephen King's "IT" or the alien "Killer Klowns From Outer Space" or even the Ghost Clown who showed up on Scooby-Doo. I'm talking about what seem to be real flesh and blood clowns that lurk at the fringes of our society, trying to lure our children to who knows what ghastly fate. The reports are numerous and come from all over the world. Is it just mass hysteria fueled by the media? Or are there real gangs of clowns up to no good? Or are the evil clowns just a smokescreen for something more uncanny and supernatural, something which has plagued mankind since he first stepped out of the caves and into what we tenatively call "civilization"?

That's the subject of this edition of The Wormwood Files. I will give up my lab coat for giant shoes and a flowerpot hat as I head into the Big Top to investigate the curious mystery of Phantom Clowns.

Here is a fairly recent case that is close to home. The time was October of 2008. The city was Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. A clown wearing a brightly colored wig and sporting a bright painted tear drop on his garishly made-up face was spotted trying to use balloons to lure pre-teen children into a brown or dirty white van with broken out windows. Reports flooded in to local police offices and finally a massive search was begun for the creepy character. The clown...or someone a lot like him...was spotted on foot near Beidler Elementary School and in the vicinity of Gardner Park. Police took the matter seriously and as is typical in these kinds of cases, a sort of hysterical fear gripped the parents of young children. In Chicago, many remembered the infamous serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who was known to dress up as "Pogo The Clown" when not luring young men to his house for sex and slaughter.

No clown was ever caught. And no child was ever reported as missing or harmed. That, also, is typical in these cases. The clowns look threatening and ominous, but no actual harm ever seems to come from them. In this aspect, they resemble two other similar phenomena...the Men In Black associated with UFO reports and "Phantom Social Workers" who threaten to take people's children but never do. Are all these phenomena linked? Are they some mass hysteria that expresses itself in different ways? I've written about Men In Black before here at the Wormwood Files and you can check that article out HERE.

The Chicago incident was by no means unique. In 1981, the city of Boston was virtually paralyzed by reports of clowns following and harassing children. Of all American cities, perhaps Boston had the most frequent reports of Phantom Clowns.
Those reports were so frequent that in May 1981, the Boston Public School Board issued the following warning to all principals in the district: "It has been brought to the attention of the police department and the district office that adults dressed as clowns have been bothering children to and from school."

Specific incidents were discussed. On May 5, 1981, two clowns were spotted near Lawrence Elementary School in Boston, trying to get kids into their black van by using candy. The following day, there were more reports of clowns driving around in a black van trailing and harassing children. According to one report, the clown driving the van was naked from the waist down!

By the 8th of May, phantom clown reports were coming in from all over the Boston area. Suburbs like Charleston, Cambridge and Randolph had their own reports of clowns stalking children near schools and playgrounds. The clowns were rarely seen by adults and since the children were often of elementary school age, the stories were at first discounted. But the sheer volume of stories coming from across all of New England, including Providence, R.I. and Waterbury, CT overwhelmed school counselors, teachers and police.

The New England clown flap of 1981 was the largest and most reported, but reports continued to surface throughout the 80's, coming from Kansas City, San Francisco and smaller cities all across the USA. Nor were such reports restricted to the U.S. England reports a large rash of phantom clowns as well.

The 80's were the "golden age" of Phantom Clown reports, but they have been seen many times since then, right up to the present year of 2014. Northampton, England has been the scene of a clown flap in recent years, as a "Bozo"-like clown has been spotted around town at odd times and in unusual places. However, this clown has been well photographed and substantiated and seems to be a prankster having some harmless but creepy fun as part of a social media prank. The Northhampton Clown has never been seen menacing children and is quite obviously a real person. In most cases, though, the Phantom Clowns are definitely described as being sinister in appearance and intent.

We could easily fill several more pages with reports resembling those we've already covered. Instead, I find it more interesting to muse about the meaning behind the phenomena of phantom clowns What exactly is going on here?

Many believe the roots of the Phantom Clown phenomena to be psychological and rooted in mass hysteria. One child lets his fear of clowns get the better of him and reports being followed by face-painted fiends. Soon, others join in...whether from the natural inclination to "follow the leader" or from a deeper reason that causes them to the see the same thing, no one knows. The fear of molesters and child kidnappers taking advantage of a clown's natural attractiveness to children erupts amongst more impressionable parents. Soon, things are taken out of context and evil clowns are seen everywhere. The media gets a hold of the story and things get blown out of proportion and you've got a full bore panic on your hands.

This is the explanation that many have for "clown flaps" and it is appealing. But one doesn't have to dig too far beneath the surface to find some problems with it. For one thing, many of the incidents are started by adults, not children. In 1981, the top year for clown sightings, a big panic was started in Kansas City when a mother saw a yellow van approach her two young girls. When the girls screamed, the mother immediately ran to the spot. The girls said they were menaced by men dressed as clowns wielding a knife. In less than half a day, police were inundated by reports of a yellow van containing clownish characters. Police reports indicate the reports were taken very seriously by the authorities. As usual, though, no one was ever apprehended.

Clowns are hardly universally loved by children. In the modern day and age, as stated before, public sentiment generally holds clowns as "creepy", especially when seen outside the confines of a circus. But this was not always the case. For most of the 20th Century, clowns were considered funny and friendly reminders of childhood. That feeling resulted in dozens of popular clown-themed characters like Bozo, Ronald McDonald and Clarabelle from "The Howdy Doody Show". But there have always been children uneasy around the "funny" characters...and  many adults as well. The fear of clowns even has a name...coulrophobia.

An evil clown is seen as the ultimate betrayer, the ultimate defiler. They would be the nightmare of every parent. This nightmare of children being "taken away" by those they like the most is at the root of the Phantom Clown phenomena. And also for the closely related "Phantom Social Worker" sightings. The clowns and the social workers are closely linked in more ways than one.

Has the collective unconscious fear actually managed to create these beings? Some think it is possible. The Tibetan monks believe in beings created by thought called "tulpas". Are Phantom Clowns the tulpa's of mankind's darkest fears? It could explain their ability to disappear seemingly at will. But that hypothesis is for the most part unprovable and likely always will be.

Another esoteric theory is that the Clowns, along with Men In Black and Phantom Social Workers, are "tricksters"...beings that are "playing games" with humanity. The famed paranormal writer John Keel, along with student of the bizarre Loren Coleman, have expressed the idea that much of what we call the paranormal and inexplicable is the result of these "tricksters" playing with our perceptions. As to what their ultimate goal is, one can only speculate.  Is it merely entertainment? Or is it some deeper purpose, perhaps preparing us to deal with the unknown? Sheer malevolence seems unlikely, as very few people have ever been actually harmed by these beings....whether they are clowns, social workers, Bigfoot, ghosts or mysterious men in black.

Right now, even as I type these words, England seems to be experiencing its own wave of "clown crimes". These are seemingly unrelated to the earlier reports of the "Northhampton Clown".  The current flap is centered around the city of Manchester and police there reported 19 cases of clown-related crime there in 2013. The variety of crimes noted is unusual. We did indeed get a lot of "classic" Phantom Clown cases where children were followed and frightened by men in clown get-ups. But there were other types of crimes reported...a clown used a knife to steal a man's bicycle.  Some of the clowns were seen collecting money for charity...only to vanish with the loot when the charity was found to be bogus. Some also committed strong-arm robberies in full silly get-up.

These cases are continuing to occur right now in the Manchester area. It is difficult to determine which ones are actual criminals who just happen to dress as clown...and which ones are more of the classic "Phantom Clowns" who seem drawn to children and who vanish into thin air. To be fair, some of these criminal clowns have been apprehended and booked. But a shocking amount have never been caught. This is true not only in Manchester, but in all the prior cases discussed as well.

This terrifying tomfoolery looks set to continue into the foreseeable future. In fact, it's fair to say that more people are afraid of clowns today than ever before, even to the point where legitimate clowns feel their livelihood is in danger. Many clown associations are reporting large drops in participation and much of it could be related to the "phantoms" doing their dirty deeds.

The study of Phantom Clowns is indeed fascinating and it extends deep into the darkest part of the human psyche, where the humorous becomes horrible and childhood laughter becomes inseparable from childhood fears. Is it just hysteria behind all the sightings? Or waves of "copycats" taking inspiration from a demented few? Or are the clowns symbolic of something much more cosmic and universal?

We may never really know. And that could be the biggest joke of them all...

This is Dr. Abner Mality, turning out the lights...