April 15, 2013

Evil Phantom Clowns

In late April of 1981, Daniel O'Connell of the Boston Public Schools sent the following memo to principals of elementary and middle schools in the city:

It has been brought to the attention of the police department and the district office that adults dressed as clowns have been bothering children to and from school. Please advise all students that they must stay away from strangers, especially ones dressed as clowns. 

This sounds like a bad joke, but the memo was based on multiple reports of clowns harassing small children in the Boston area. A clown had tried to lure children into his black van near Franklin Park and the Mary Curley school in Jamaica Plain, and two clowns in a black van had offered Brookline children candy if they would join them for a quick ride. The children who witnessed this incident gave police a very clear description of the van, including that it had a broken headlight and no hubcaps. No van matching the description was found, however.

A still from Killer Klowns from Outer Space.

By early May, the sinister clowns had been seen in many Boston neighborhoods and in several neighboring towns. At least one report claimed a clown had been naked from waist down. As we say here in New England, that's wicked creepy.

Curiously the clowns were never seen by adults, only by small children. Unable to locate even one evil clown, the police finally told the public it was just children's fantasy and closed the case.

The clown craze ended in Boston, but did spread in the spring of 1981 to other cities including Providence, both Kansas Cities, Pittsburgh, Omaha, and Denver. In addition to clowns children in these cities also reported sinister men dressed like gorillas, Spiderman, and a bunny. No evil children's party entertainers of any kind were ever found.

What to make of the phantom clowns? Maybe it was just all hysteria and fantasy. When I was in grade school in the 1970s we children were repeatedly warned about getting into cars or vans with strangers. I even remember a special film was shown to students about the dangers of being abducted by roaming perverts. Parents had to sign permission slips for the movie because it was so gruesome. My parents didn't let me see it, but I remember many classmates who did were reduced to tears because it was so horrifying. If you terrify your children enough they'll naturally start seeing things.

The evil clown scare was also a precursor to the daycare sex-abuse hysteria that swept the nation a few years later. In Massachusetts, the staff at Malden's Fells Acre Daycare Center were accused of sexually abusing the children in their care. The children testified in court that an evil clown and a robot were involved in the abuse. Despite these fantastical elements, the three family members who ran Fells Acre were convicted and sent to prison, but eventually were released with reduced sentences. The testimony from the children was just considered too unreliable.

As the public later learned during the Catholic clergy sex scandal, sexual abuse of minors really had been happening in Massachusetts for decades. No clowns, robots or rabbits were involved, just trusted members of the community. The community had been so busy projecting its fears outward that it neglected to look hard at itself.


C. Franz Rahe said...

Great post! I just heard of this urban legend a few months ago. The person was convinced that this happened in Malden. She knew all about the scary clowns in Malden, but her sister who is four years younger was not aware of the legend.

Anonymous said...

The phantom clown phenomenon didn't end in the 80s. There were phantom clown reports coming out of Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood in October of 2008 and as recently as last year in Idaho. As with the 1980s accounts, no suspects were ever identified or apprehended.

Loren Coleman has documented this stuff extensively on his blog, the Copycat Effect.


The word "jest" appeared in the captcha for this post. You just can't make these things up!

Peter Muise said...

Hi Anonymous - Watch out for those synchronicities! Thanks for the updated information about the phantom clowns.

Wade Tarzia said...

Steven King seems to have had such legends in mind when he wrote his novel, "It," my favorite. Now this makes me wonder about the chronology of clown legends, and whether diffusion or independent invention (clowns as archetype?) or even some point-source event (similar to ad-lore like Paul Bunyan tales making their way from ads to folk tradition?)can further elucidate the type?

Peter Muise said...

Hi Wade!

I considered using an image of Pennywise from "It", but I went with the Killer Klowns instead.

"It" was published in 1986."Poltergeist" with the evil clown toy came out in 1982, so the evil clown reports in Boston pre-dated both of those. I would be curious if King and Tobe Hooper had heard about these clowns, and also to learn when the first evil clowns were actually reported. It's also possible the concept had been circulating for years before it bubbled up to the surface. I think lots of kids are scared of clowns.

Tomoko said...

This is cool!

Anonymous said...

No legend true events in mass and ri. I was chased me and my brother in small citie name Central Falls, by a.man dressed up as an elephant holding balloons but he was evil.looking

Anonymous said...

I hid at a church thats no longer there, heard the van drive by picking up one of the clowns there was like 3 or4 of them. I stayed hidden in a bush by the church till.my brother found me.

Black Vans Kids said...

A clown had tried to lure children into his black van near Franklin Park ... blackvanskids.blogspot.com

37 now n I'll never forget said...

Very true indeed my friends and I were chased by a black van with clown driving and one in passenger seat we were o
In 2nd grade n knew nothing of "it" or poltergeist this was in e.p. r.I. in 1984

37 now n I'll never forget said...

Very true indeed my friends and I were chased by a black van with clown driving and one in passenger seat we were o
In 2nd grade n knew nothing of "it" or poltergeist this was in e.p. r.I. in 1984

37 now n I'll never forget said...

Very true indeed my friends and I were chased by a black van with clown driving and one in passenger seat we were o
In 2nd grade n knew nothing of "it" or poltergeist this was in e.p. r.I. in 1984

Anonymous said...

And you of course post anonymously to make your story easier to verify and your testimony more reliable.

Anonymous said...

I was about 12 and had a paper route in a small south shore town during the clown hysteria. I was picking up my papers at the end of my street which intersected with a major road. A car drove by real slow and the passanger was dressed as a clown and looking at me. I waved down a neighbor who tried to follow but could not catch up to them. Not sure if pshcho clown or an entertainer on their way to a kids party but it scared the crap out of me for a long time.

CP said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PearL said...

My 5th grade classmate was murdered in 1981 in Brockton Mass, and there were rumors about the clowns killing him. The police have never found his killer. http://www.symbiosistechnologies.com/media/press/zadroznyenterprise20040328.pdf

Anonymous said...

But the little boy who witnessed the clowns grabbing his friend was tramatized

Anonymous said...

I remember the clown hysteria from the early 80's... I was about 10 years old at the time and I lived in Randolph. The story I heard was that parents should be on the lookout for clowns driving around in a white van, handing out candy & stickers to kids. The stickers supposedly had LSD on the back of them so kids were hallucinating after licking the back of them. There was also a report of some clowns that were not wearing any pants so they were actually only dressed like clowns from the waist up! When driving around they just looked like they were on their way to a kids party or something but they would expose themselves to kids by getting out of the van to pass out candy and stickers! It's hilarious now but it was actually pretty scary back then as a 10 year old.

Don't forget this was around the time of the whole Satanic Panic / Daycare abuse scandals like the McMartin case that started popping up all over the country, so I guess it wasn't much of a stretch to believe that clowns with no pants on were cruising around Boston suburbs terrorizing the neighborhoods.

Here's another story of The Clowns in Southie: