The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

South Carolina community warned about reported group of scary clowns trying to lure children into woods

(iStock photo)

Something sinister may be afoot in the woods of Greenville, S. C. — and, if so, its shoes are comically oversized.

Clown sightings, as reported by residents of Fleetwood Manor Apartments, have alarmed local parents and set the community on edge. Per a letter distributed to residents of the community and then posted to Facebook on Friday, the property manager warned of a “clown or a person dressed in clown clothing” who was “trying to lure children in the woods.” It is the latest in a recent string of clowns reported as real-life menaces.

Although the evidence is sparse, the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the clown complaint. “Many of you have inquired about clowns being spotted in the woods near Fleetwood Manor Apartments,” said Drew Pinciaro, a Greenville County deputy, in a statement Monday, according to WYFF News 4.

“As of today’s date,” he said, “there has been one incident report filed with our office regarding this.”

In the incident report, one woman said she saw “several clowns in the woods flashing green laser lights” on Aug. 19. The next night, she said her son could make out the sounds of “chains and banging” coming from outside their front door. A different person said a clown with a large, winking nose was hanging out near the dumpsters early one Saturday morning.

Fleetwood Manor resident James Arnold told BuzzFeed News that his children, ages 10 and 13, described “clowns out there in the woods and they’re trying to get us to come out there,” he said. “Some had chains, some had knives, and some were holding out money, saying, ‘Come here, we’ve got candy for you,’ but they wouldn’t go.” His wife, Donna, said she filed the report and invoked the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s “It,” about a creature that takes the form of a clown to stalk children.

If what the Arnolds saw mimicked “It,” they could hardly be faulted for being so distraught. In the long descent from court jester to made-up face of villainy, “It,” when King published the horror novel in 1986, marked the changing of the cultural tide against clowns. Clowns could be threatening characters, made worse by the fact that there was real-world precedent for evil jesters. In the decade before the book’s release, serial killer John Wayne Gacy, convicted of raping and killing 33 men and boys, occasionally performed as a clown named Pogo. 

Although the killer-clown trope in fiction is at least as old as “Pagliacci,” the 1892 opera about a knife-wielding performer, since “It,” the dark side of clowns has steadily picked up steam. “American Horror Story” featured a killer clown. There is an “It” movie currently in the works. Through the Joker, the great comic-book villain, the clown has been portrayed with buffoonish menace by Jack Nicholson, criminal nihilism by Heath Ledger and teeth grills by Jared Leto

(Even “Baskets,” the FX dramedy starring Zach Galifianakis as a clown, wallows in what The Post described as delicious misery; this, too, could be an old echo of Joseph Grimaldi, the 19th-century English clown whose fame on the stage was rivaled by the illness and depression he suffered later in life.)

The secret to the clown’s anti-success, wrote the Smithsonian Magazine in 2013, is in the mix of mischief, makeup and a target demographic made up of children. “Where there is mystery, it’s supposed there must be evil, so we think, ‘What are you hiding?” Andrew McConnell Stott, a University of Buffalo, SUNY, English professor, told the magazine in 2013.

As the evil clown has ascended, the friendly clown has not. By 2014, there were 2,500 members of the World Clown Association, a thousand fewer clowns than a decade before. The big-tent circus, the American clown’s natural habitat, is on the decline, while Cirque du Soleil and more acrobatic acts prosper. Clowns like the Florida entertainer named Wrinkles have embraced the creepy vibe and can be hired to scare friends.

This creepy 65-year-old clown will terrify your misbehaving kid for cash

The South Carolina incident is not the first time disturbing clowns have been reported by witnesses. Earlier in August, Wisconsin police fielded calls about a dirty clown wandering Green Bay carrying black balloons.

And in October 2014, a rash of hooligans in spooky clown costumes were spotted across the United States, reported ABC. That month, more than a dozen French teenagers dressed as clowns were arrested for harassing strangers; it was one episode in what the Atlantic called France’s “clown outbreak” that in turn spawned anti-clown vigilantes, the “chasseurs de clown.”