Shortly before Halloween a woman contacted me on Twitter to tell me that “A grown man in a clown suit jumped out of the bushes and chased my daughters in the park yesterday. Not hysteria. Real!”
It took me a minute to figure out what the message meant. I had recently appeared in national (and international) news media including People magazine, Time, CNN, and BBC talking about the recent clown panic. In the interviews (and in my book Bad Clowns) I explained that some of the clown reports (specifically those of “phantom clowns”) had elements of social contagion or mass hysteria, and in addition there were some real-life pranksters and copycat hoaxers who had decided to dress up as clowns to scare people in parks, dark parking lots, and so on.
She seemed to be under the mistaken impression that I said (or believed) that all the clown reports were fictional or the result of hysteria, and of course I said no such thing. I replied, “Yes, that’s correct. The clown panic is a mix of: 1 pranksters; 2 copycats, and 3 rumors. The experience you describe is #1.” (Had I more characters I’d have added “4 hoaxes,” but I seemed to get the point across.)
That led to a back-and-forth with the woman, who took issue with my characterization of people dressing up as clowns to scare people as a “prank”: “Don’t diminish the act as a prank. The effects do real and lasting harm,” and compared a scary clown sighting to someone putting a gun to someone’s head. Sensing I was being trolled, I replied, “If you honestly can’t distinguish between a person in a clown costume scaring kids in a park and a gun to the head, I can’t help you. Goodnight.”
A few days later I became curious about the incident the woman described–what exactly were the circumstances under which her daughters were menaced by a clown in a park? With a little internet sleuthing I located the incident; here’s the entirety of one of the news reports: “Oneida County Sheriff’s Office deputies are investigating a report of a male dressed as a clown chasing two young girls about 7 p.m. Tuesday near a park in the town of Trenton, north of Utica. The clown jumped out of the bushes in the hiking trails near the park and chased the girls, ages 8 and 11, police said. The pair ran away and called for help. The girls described the clown as a man in his late teens to early 20s, wearing an orange wig with white and red face paint, a gray and white shirt, and tight yellow pants.” (There were a few other duplicate news stories but none contained any more information.)
Over the course of the next week I checked back every few days to see if there were any updates on the incident, if anyone had been arrested, any eyewitnesses had come forward, and so on. For such a serious, threatening incident-an event that, according to their mother left “real and lasting harm”–I was surprised to see nothing more about the story even weeks after it happened. The only follow-ups I found were… skeptical. I had assumed that the incident occurred as described; after all, there were many verified clown sightings across the country, and I had no reason to doubt the validity of this one. At the same time, however, I knew that there were many hoaxed reports of scary clowns. In at least a dozen cases people (ranging from children to teens to adults) admitted that they had not in fact been menaced, chased, or attacked by a creepy clown as they’d claimed, that they had pulled a prank–ironically, for the same reason pranksters had dressed up as scary clowns: for attention or as a copycat hoax.
I took a second look at the news reports. Though there was very little information to go on, what there was raised some questions, beginning with the kids’ eyewitness description: “The girls described the clown as a man in his late teens to early 20s, wearing an orange wig with white and red face paint, a gray and white shirt, and tight yellow pants.”
How, I wondered, could the girls have identified the age and gender of someone “wearing an orange wig with white and red face paint, a gray and white shirt, and tight yellow pants”? (For that matter, how did no one else apparently see such an outlandish figure in the park, either before the girls arrived, while laying in wait, chasing the girls as they called for help, or leaving the area?)
The report gives no clue about how far away the girls were when they first spotted the clown, but presumably it was close enough to obtain such a detailed description-though that raised a question of how far the girls were chased; a running adult would have little trouble keeping up with 8 and 11 year olds, so either the clown was far away (thus the girls had a significant head start), or close by and making no effort whatsoever to catch up to the girls. Neither seemed to make much sense.
I then wondered what the light conditions were at the time of the alleged sighting. I consulted an online resource for sunrise and sunset times in Trenton on the day the clown was reported; sunrise was 7:07 AM, and sunset was 6:21 PM. The incident was claimed to have happened around 7 PM, so about 40 minutes after sunset. Surrounding trees and buildings cause an area to grow even darker because they block oblique sunset light, and Google image results show few if any streetlights in the area, leaving the area quite dark for such a detailed description. (I previously researched low-light eyewitness reports in my investigation into the Lizard Man of Scape Ore Swamp.)
I don’t know, and can’t prove, that the scary clown report by these two girls was definitely a hoax, but I can tell you, as someone who has extensive experience investigating false reports, hoaxes, and dubious eyewitness testimony, that I am extremely skeptical. There is, as far as I can tell, no evidence whatsoever that a clown chased two girls in that park other than their stories, whose accuracy and details beggar plausibility. The girls, of course, would not likely want to admit their prank, especially after having the police and news media involved–and their mother using their story to challenge others on social media. Fortunately, if it is a hoax, the girls won’t in fact suffer any “real and lasting harm” from this, though hopefully they learned a lesson.