It was probably the Gacy case and the publicity surrounding it which sparked a wave of "phantom clown" sightings in 1981. The phenomenon, as documented by Loren Coleman in Mysterious America (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1983), originated in Boston with unconfirmed reports of men dressed as clowns trying to lure children into vans. Over the course of a few days, more reports of "clown men in vans" bothering children came in, then more, and soon the sightings had spread to surrounding cities and towns. Eventually there were sightings reported in as many as 10 other states in different parts of the country. No abductions occurred, no arrests were made, indeed no evidence was ever found to substantiate any of these reports, nearly all of which had been made by children under 10 years old.
Similar rumor outbreaks have occurred since the early '80s, and while "The Phantom Clowns" and "The Clown Statue" have little in common as narratives apart from a malevolent clown character, it's possible that the latter was inspired by the former.
It's also possible that it was inspired, at least in part, by various horror films made over the past several decades. The 1982 movie Poltergeist contained scenes in which a very creepy clown doll terrorizes two young children in their bedroom. Stephen King's It, a 1990 TV movie, featured a child-killing monster called "Pennywise the Dancing Clown." Demonic clowns also drove the plots of Killer Klowns from Outer Space in 1988, and Clownhouse in 1990.
Coulrophobia: fear of clowns
In any case, an irrational fear of clowns is a recognized clinical phobia known as coulrophobia. It's more widespread than one might think, especially among children. A study conducted by the University of Sheffield in England found that all of the more than 250 children surveyed disliked clown images as part of the decor in hospitals. Even some of the older children, some of them in their mid-teens, found the images frightening. "As adults we make assumptions about what works for children," one of the authors of the study was quoted as saying. "We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them frightening and unknowable."
That "unknowability" the researcher spoke of may be the key to clowns' essential creepiness, not to mention the horror they're capable of evoking in movies and urban legends. We're accustomed to reading people's emotional states and motivations in their facial expressions. Who knows what evil may lurk beneath a clown's painted face? Children do, apparently. Perhaps it's a lesson worth remembering.
• The 13 SCARIEST Urban Legends Ever Told!
Sources and further reading:
Clowns Not a Laughing Matter
Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 30 January 2008
Clowns 'Too Scary' for Children's Wards in Hospitals
Sky News, 16 January 2008
Profile: John Wayne Gacy, the 'Killer Clown'
Search for Clown in Shooting Death Points at Woman
Gainesville Sun, 7 September 1990
Police Question Suspected Clown
Washington Times, 8 June 1994
By Loren Coleman (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1983), p. 66 ff.
Last updated: 12/23/11