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As Halloween nears, clowns on edge

As Halloween nears, clowns on edge
Scary clown Halloween masks among others at Spirit Halloween store. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

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.

Now it's his turn to be the target of scares.

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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.

Steve Colmus, of Baltimore, looks at masks for Halloween costumes at Spirit Halloween store.
Steve Colmus, of Baltimore, looks at masks for Halloween costumes at Spirit Halloween store. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

"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.

Creepy clown sightings have been taking the nation by storm. Florida is the most recent state to experience multiple appearances.

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."

A shopper looks for Halloween costumes among scary clown masks at Spirit Halloween store.
A shopper looks for Halloween costumes among scary clown masks at Spirit Halloween store. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

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."

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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 clown-related 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 and the Hollywood Reporter. A Clown Lives Matter Facebook club 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.

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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. No one should be afraid to be a clown."

Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this article.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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