Three weeks hence is Halloween, and reports of evil clown sightings are popping up. The first was in August, from South Carolina, where clowns supposedly offered children money to accompany them to their house deep in the woods. Then came alleged sightings in other states, a handful of arrests (two people in Georgia were charged for filing a false report to 9-1-1) and a barrage of warnings from “authorities.”

Maybe it’s mass hysteria. Maybe it’s a marketing campaign for a soon-to-be-announced movie or cable TV series. Maybe practical jokers actually are scaring kids and their suffocating parents. But it certainly is nothing new, as Matthew Dessem of Slate.com documents, starting with a sighting in the Boston suburb of Brookline in 1981:

“America’s decades of clown sorrow begin at Lawrence Elementary when children report two clowns driving a black van offering them candy. School principals are warned about the clown threat, leading to a rash of reported sightings across Boston. No clowns are ever found.”

Also from 1981: “Reports of ‘menacing clowns’ begin in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh police are the first to draw a connection between the clown sightings — which occurred in black neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and Kansas City — and the Atlanta child murders the summer before, which also targeted black children. However, the Boston-area clowns were sighted mostly in white neighborhoods.”

Fast forward to Erie, Pennsylvania, a decade later: “More than 40 children (and some of their parents) report a clown prowling area back yards and looking through windows. A local bank is robbed by a man in a clown suit, but police dismiss him as ‘a copycat clown’ once he is apprehended. The original clown gets away clean.”

There was this howler from Rock Hill, South Carolina, the next year: “A wave of clown sightings comes to an end when four teenage boys are arrested for dressing as clowns and terrorizing local children. The boys aren’t charged, as authorities cannot find a law they broke.”

That could not happen now, because a prosecutor would find a law to charge them under, even if it had to be invented on the spot.

America’s clown crisis went political in the District of Columbia in 1994: “Police receive multiple reports of a clown trying to lure children into his van. They decline to investigate. By November, the lack of police attention to this case – as well as the disappearance of a small boy in the neighborhood – is held up by local activists as examples of police ignoring or disbelieving crimes reported by black citizens.”

The big losers in all this hysteria would seem to be kindly clowns who offer their services for kids’ birthday parties. There seem to be no winners, but keep this in mind: Next year, New Line Cinema will distribute “It,” a film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel. The main character will be Pennywise the Dancing Clown. I’m just sayin’ …

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