Paul Meehan has been the focus of interviews here previously on the subject of UFOs and the paranormal in cinema. He has also contributed his own written articles from time to time, and below you will find his latest essay touching on phantom clowns and the paranormal.
Phantom Clowns, Bogus Social Workers, and Men in Black
by Paul Meehan
Silent horror film star Lon Chaney, Sr. once famously observed that a clown may be funny in a circus ring, but imagine if your doorbell rang in the middle of the night and upon opening the door you found a clown standing before you in the moonlight. Chaney’s notion of “the clown at midnight” as an incongruous image of terror was put into practice in the carnival of grotesques he portrayed on the silent screen in movies like The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927) and West of Zanzibar (1928). Strangely, Chaney’s notion of the midnight clown would replicate itself into the enigmatic phenomenon of “Phantom Clowns” decades later.
Sometime around 1990, my family was living in Ridgewood, a working class neighborhood in Queens, New York. Our daughter attended the local public school, and one day we received a notice about a mysterious man dressed in a clown costume who was reportedly seen in the vicinity of the school attempting to lure children into a waiting car. At the time, this frightening narrative seemed like just another bizarre ordeal to be endured in anarchic 1990s-era New York City, but, oddly, the story was never covered in the local media, and there were no reports of arrests or of children actually being abducted. Back then, I had no idea that Ridgewood had been visited by a Phantom Clown.
In the early 1980s, anomalist Loren Coleman began receiving reports from around the country about evil clowns stalking children, which he documented in his 1983 book Mysterious America, and currently on his website, www.cryptomundo.com The first reports came from Boston, Brookline, Charlestown, Cambridge, Canton, Randolph, and other communities in the area in 1981. On May 6, the Boston police department responded to several complaints about individuals dressed in clown outfits harassing schoolchildren at local elementary schools. In one report, the clown was nude from the waist down and drove a beat-up, black van. In Brookline, two clowns tried to lure kids inside their vehicle by offering them candy. he clowns reportedly drove an older model, black van with ladders on the side, a broken headlight, and no hubcaps. Oddly, although the reports were widely discussed between local newspapers, police and parents groups, and a number of “birthday clown” children’s entertainers were questioned in connection with the sightings, no child was ever physically attacked or kidnapped, and no trace of the evil clowns was ever found.
Later in the month, Phantom Clowns began to be reported in Pittsburgh and in Kansas City, Missouri. The Kansas City clown drove a yellow van and wore a black shirt with a picture of the devil on the front and black pants with candy canes on the sides. He reportedly threatened the children with a knife, and in one report, a sword. One mother described how she watched as a yellow van approached her daughter and a friend on their way to a school bus stop. The van stopped and someone inside spoke to the two girls, who screamed and fled, while the van sped away. There were also reports of an individual wearing a rabbit suit terrorizing children in the area, as well as mysterious would-be abductors dressed as a gorilla and Spider-Man.
Sightings spread to Nebraska and Colorado before slowly fading away, and were attributed to group hysteria. But Coleman observed that these reports were strictly local affairs, and that the phenomenon had never been reported in the national media. Oddly, the reports continued to spread from state to state. And years later, the Phantom Clowns made a comeback.
In October, 2008, reports of an evil clown trying to lure children into a van with balloons began to emanate from the Chicago area. The clown was described as wearing a wig and white face paint with teardrops drawn on his cheek He reportedly drove a white or brown van with the windows broken out. Some reports described him as wearing a multicolored clown suit. As in previous outbreaks, reports of the clowns persisted for a few days before petering out, no children were harmed or abducted, and the mysterious bozos seemed to vanish into thin air once more.
Do the Phantom Clown reports stem from localized outbreaks of hysteria, are they merely urban legends, or are they something more sinister? The evil clowns reported in America had an analog in reports of “Bogus Social Workers” (abbreviated as BSWs) from all across England during the 1990s. A typical case occurred on the morning of October 10, 1995, when Mark Dunn was alone in his home in Manchester, his wife and children out of the house, and a visitor came to the door. It was a well-groomed, official looking woman of about 35, who claimed to be a social worker with the Manchester City Council investigating alleged mistreatment of his younger child. When Mr. Dunn demanded to see her identification, the woman told him she had to retrieve it from her car. Dunn observed her retreat to a parked car in which two men were waiting. The woman then got in and the car raced off.
Another BSW case occurred in Leigh, Lancashire, when a well-dressed couple came to the door of one Mrs. Carter, a local nurse who had two daughters. The man, who had the air of a petty bureaucrat, produced a photo ID that identified him as a worker with the community’s social services department, while the woman wore a scarf emblazoned with the words, “Child Protection.” The “social workers” claimed they were there to investigate reports that Mrs. Carter was not feeding her children properly. The pair inspected the home’s pantry area, but Mrs. Carter balked when the man requested to examine her children and the visitors were asked to leave. Mrs. Carter noticed that a large van was parked outside their home, and the man explained to her that the van was used to remove children that were deemed to ber at risk. There were three women inside the van wearing similar “Child Protection” scarves, but the man informed her that it would not be necessary to take her children at this time and abruptly left with his female companion.
When Mrs. Carter’s husband returned after work, the matter was reported to the police. As reports of the BSWs proliferated, twenty-three local police forces combined to form “Operation Childcare,” a program dedicated to tracking down the enigmatic social workers. Hundreds of BSW incidents were reported, leading the police to believe that multiple pedophile rings were involved. Yet, as with the Phantom Clowns, children were not abducted or harmed, and the police were unable to apprehend any of the perpetrators. As the decade of the 1990s progressed, visitations by the BSWs quietly faded into nothingness.
The Bogus Social Worker phenomenon has affinities with reports of the notorious Men in Black (MIB), who have been associated with UFOs since the late 1940s. Like the BSWs, the MIB are reportedly well-dressed, officious-looking individuals who visit the homes of UFO witnesses, intimidate them, and confiscate photos and other evidence. The MIB are also prone to making threats that are never carried out. While government agencies are probably responsible for the majority of MIB reports, some of them are so bizarre that many ufologists believe they are carried out by human-alien hybrid beings.
Oddly, many UFO abductees suffer from “coulrophobia,” or fear of clowns. It’s possible that these fears derive from evil clown images presented in popular culture. John Leguizamo played a demonic clown from hell in Spawn (1997), while Heath Ledger’s performance as Batman’s harlequin nemesis the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) garnered him a posthumous Oscar for best supporting actor. More recently, a coulrophobic Jesse Eisenberg faced off against a zombie clown in Zombieland (2010).
Clowns are more explicitly linked with aliens in a number of films dating from the 1980s. In the low-budget British saucer movie Xtro (1983) a boy (Simon Nash) is abducted by aliens and in the aftermath acquires the psychokinetic power to animate his toys. He turns his toy clown into an evil, dwarfish harlequin who harvests green alien eggs from a hapless woman in a nightmarish sequence. he demonic clown doll recalls a similar monstrous toy animated by a supernatural force in Poltergeist (1982).
Stephen King’s It! (1990), a four hour telefilm adaptation of King’s 1986 novel, featured the inimitable Tim Curry as the evil clown Pennywise. Thirty years after a homicidal clown attack, seven childhood friends are drawn back to the little town of Derry, Maine to combat the menace of the clown, who has returned to claim more victims. Pennywise, who inhabits a sewer below the town, uses his telepathic powers to manipulate reality and lure children to their deaths. In the end, the evil clown is revealed to be a monstrous spider-like entity concealing itself behind the facade of the circus disguise.
In Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), a sendup of alien invasion flicks, a flying saucer full of extraterrestrial bozos lands near the amusement park town of Santa Cruz, California. The Klowns wreck havoc in the sleepy seaside community, abducting residents and cocooning them in cotton candy, killing people with lethal shadow puppets and perpetrating various sadistic acts of circus mayhem. The invasion is thwarted when local law enforcement learns that the Klowns are vulnerable in their bulbous red noses. While the film’s bizarre premise is played mostly for laughs, the grotesque Killer Klowns are surprisingly scary. According to Internet rumors, the Klowns are set to return to planet Earth in a 3-D sequel in 2012.
Oddly, some UFO abductees claim to have colurophobia as a result of their experiences. Clown imagery is thought to represent “screen memories” that mask the true face of their abductors. In their 1997 book The Truth About Alien Abductions, British authors Peter Hough and Moyshe Kalman write that, “The clown is the happy, smiling face in the car that tries to entice children to take a ride by offering sweets. It has been used to great effect in horror films and books. Yet it also surfaces in the twilight zone of anomalous experience. It is a thread that runs through the UFO phenomenon.”
The authors cite the experience of “Stephanie,” who had an unusual encounter in 1960, when she was 10 years old and living in Merseyside, England. Stephanie and another girl were playing in a row of abandoned buildings awaiting demolition when they saw something that attracted them inside one of the ruined homes. Hanging in an alcove inside the drab, dusty structure was a brightly-colored clown costume. Fascinated by the sight, the girls entered the house to get a better look, but when Stephanie attempted to touch the suit it rippled like a disturbed reflection on the surface of water, causing the girls to flee. It’s possible that the gaudy image was a hologram designed to lure children to a deserted location where they could be abducted.
Abduction researcher Budd Hopkins relates another clown encounter in his 2003 book Sight Unseen. A abductee named “Edward” (a pseudonym) had contacted him concerning his experience with an unusual individual inside an Outback restaurant in a suburb of Chicago in 1999. Edward, who was dining with his wife and a friend, had finished having dinner when he became aware of a man seated at another table who was staring at him intently. The man was dressed in an outlandish fashion, in Hopkins’s words, “as if he were a clown from a circus or an actor or some sort.” He was wearing a brightly-colored plaid jacket with a circular collar and leather elbow patches. He sported a distinctive beard and had dark, bronze-colored skin like a Native American, and was wearing a brown fedora. When Edward and his party had paid their bill and exited into a large, mostly deserted parking lot, they were confronted by the man once more, who was now standing beside a bright red sports car. Upon reaching their car, Edward was abducted while his wife and friend were rendered unconscious.
Coleman reports on another Plantom Clown sighting that may be abduction related. On August 11, 2009, a man driving his truck along a deserted rural road near Ardmore, Indiana at 3 a.m. called 911 to report that his truck was chased by a man wearing a clown suit who emerged from a wooded area. After chasing the truck, the clown disappeared back into the woods. Police officers responding to the 911 call could find no trace of the mysterious clown at the scene. It would seem that this Phantom Clown was unusually fast on his feet, and may have been a screen memory for an abduction event, an experience that typically takes place in a deserted location in the dead of night.
Of course, evil clowns exist in the real world, apart from books, movies and the anomalous zone of UFO abduction reports. The notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who confessed to killing 33 people, was fond of entertaining at children’s parties as “Pogo the Clown.” Then there’s the strange case of Emmett Kelly, Jr., son of the famous Ringling Brothers clown, who was convicted of killing his gay lover while claiming he was under the influence of his clown persona. In a more jocular vein are the “Jugallos,” fans of the rap group Insane Clown Posse, who wear old clothes and facepaint, and who occasionally commit antisocial acts.
Whether they are aliens, criminals or pederasts, urban legends or screen memories, evil clowns have become part of America’s mythic landscape. Moreover, the Phantom Clown phenomenon has proved to be a genuine anomalous mystery that has endured over decades. Lon Chaney’s creepy vision of the Clown at Midnight still has the power to shock and evoke terror.