Creepy clown masks made by Jim Brown, an Evansville, Ind., artist who has molded and painted Halloween gear for more than 15 years. (Kevin Swank/Associated Press)
Columnist

Turns out that people with a lot of face makeup and bizarre, billowy hair aren’t just frightening America from debate podiums.

Creepy clowns, the ones with squirting flowers — not flags — on their lapels, are becoming a scourge across the country.

From Virginia to Florida to Ohio, police are getting calls about threatening men dressed up as clowns luring children into the woods with money, running around with machetes, pipes, knives or even guns and generally scaring the bejesus out of everybody.

What next? A killer kitten spree?

Like America isn’t scared enough this election season.

Four students, between the ages of 7 and 9, said they saw creepy clowns in parts of Annapolis, Md., in late September. Annapolis police say that after interviewing the kids, they discovered those reports were unfounded. There have been reports of creepy clown sightings in other parts of the country, in particular Greenville, S.C. (WUSA)

Sure, the scary clown trope isn’t new. Horror movies and haunted houses have always been infested with blood-spattered Bozos.

“It’s a yearly thing for us,” sighed Randy Christensen, the president of the World Clown Association. “With Halloween, this happens. And we just try to stay on the positive side of things because we’re about bringing joy and happiness and giggles and hope.”

Okay there, Mr. Sunshine. But this killer clown thing sweeping the nation is a whole other beast.

Random clowns have been popping up for months now. One school even had to go on a lockdown after reports of scary clowns harassing kids outside. This isn’t trick-or-treat stuff.

“No. This is something new,” said Christensen, who lives in Minnesota, and I swear I could see his sad clown face over the phone. “I wonder if it just doesn’t have to do with the current state of our country.”

This week alone, someone reported a car full of clowns, possibly armed, careening through the York College of Pennsylvania campus; police in Salisbury, Md., investigated reports of three people dressed as clowns hiding in bushes and jumping out to scare people; and a woman in Lancaster, Ohio, called police to report someone dressed as a clown holding a large kitchen knife.

“These aren’t clowns; they’re imposters,” said Christensen, who was recently honored by his association with the title “master clown.”

The professional clowns are serious about their credentials. And furious about all this.

The creepy clown wave began in mid-August, when there were several reports of imposters dressed as clowns trying to lure kids into the woods in South Carolina.

Those stories went viral. A flurry of staged photos of scary clowns in dark woods freaked out all of social media, and then the copycat creepy clowns came — a full-blown epidemic.

Police are getting pretty sick of this. So far, it doesn’t look like major arrests have been made.

But you can imagine lots of cops are running around towns looking for clowns, furious that their work-life soundtrack is less bass and a lot more slide whistle.

The top cops in Augusta County, Va., were so fed up with scary clown reports that they issued a news release reminding people that it’s a class 6 felony for someone over 16 to run around with a mask on.

The police chief in Paw Paw, W.Va., was less subtle with the anti-clown notices he posted around town.

“If someone sees you dressed like this they have the right to defend themselves,” the posters said. “It is not normal for clowns to be running around like idiots all year long. I will stand behind anyone who feels they need to protect themselves from these so-called clowns. So, to sum it all up, if you run around in a clown suit, you should probably expect for citizens to beat you (for their own protection), then get arrested by police.”

So it’s come to this. Clown profiling.

Please, please. Do not send in the clowns.

And thus the saddest sad trombone outcome of them all: The members of the Ali Ghan Shrine Club’s clown unit in Western Maryland announced this week that they are pulling out of an annual evening parade in Hagerstown — for your safety. And theirs.

“That’s not what we’re all about,” Tom Holland, one of the Shriners’ clowns, told the Cumberland Times-News. “Sure, some kids get scared when they see us, so we don’t push that. We just keep moving on and give them space.”

They’ll go to the daytime parade they usually do, though. And travel in a group, for safety.

There are people who live to make sick kids smile. And now, their entire world is being twisted into a sick joke.

Christensen said the clown community has been so unnerved by the wave of scary clown reports that he’s been addressing his fellow clowns in totally unfunny blog posts and YouTube videos about overcoming clown persecution.

World Clown Association president Randy Christensen addressed the rash of "creepy clown" reports across the U.S., saying that individuals doing "this crazy stuff" are not clowns. (World Clown Association)

“Anybody doing that is not a clown,” Christensen said in one video. “If somebody dressed up as a police officer to gain someone’s trust, but the person wasn’t really a police officer and then tried to kidnap a child, they wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, a police officer kidnapped a child.’ They’d say, ‘Somebody impersonating a police officer.’ And I think that’s a differentiation we need to know.”

And, like with that audience member who just won’t laugh, “it’s just better not to argue at all” and back off if faced with a true clown-hater, he said. (Because otherwise, that gets, um, creepy.)

His fellow clowns are deeply concerned about all this. There is much chatter in the clown community about the defiling of a centuries-old art form.

“Just go out and make them laugh,” the chief clown urges.

Is this a big enough concern for him to convene a creepy clown panel at the next World Clown Association convention?

“The next convention is in March, and it’s in Bangkok, Thailand,” Christensen explains. “And this really isn’t happening anywhere else in the world. Only in America.”

Yup, only in America.

Twitter: @petulad