For most, clown sightings are infrequent at best, only occurring when a visiting circus is in town or at a child's party. Recently, however, reports of clowns in the woods of northern North Carolina have taken on a more sinister bent.
Local residents have reported spotting clowns in several circumstances, with no clear motive behind the appearances. Professional clowns say that the sightings and the panic they generated in North Carolina have hurt the "family friendly" image that the entertainers try to project.
"I wonder how the reporting on the story would go if instead of clowns, people were dressing up as aliens, witches, zombies or doctors?" professional clown Mike Becvar, who works under the name Sir Tooney Van Dukes, wrote in an email to The New York Times. "What if they were wearing hospital scrubs, lab coats and a stethoscope around their neck. Would the news report that doctors were hiding in the woods trying to lure kids with candy?"
With frightening clowns featured in horror flicks like "Poltergeist" and "It," maintaining a cheery, friendly image is already difficult for professionals like Mr. Becvar to maintain. While clowns were once seen as hilarious circus performers or party entertainers, the fear of the big-shoed, red-nosed comedians is so common that it has its own name – coulrophobia.
Reports from North Carolina only make the situation worse.
In once instance, residents say, a person in a clown suit silently waved money at small children. One clown waited on the side of the road in a rain poncho. All told, there have been at least eight clown sightings in the northern part of the state, several of which have been near Greenville and Winston-Salem.
The sightings have even prompted Greenville police to remind the public of a bizarre North Carolina law: It is prohibited for individuals over the age of 18 to dress up as clowns.
Law enforcement officials have several theories about what is going on in the area. One involves an independent horror movie, known as "31," which is filming nearby. Another is that somebody out there is just getting their "kicks" by scaring locals. But police don't want to take chances, especially where children are concerned.
"This is something we are taking very seriously, especially because of the allegations of the people dressed as clowns attempting to lure children into the woods," said Greenville County Master Deputy Ryan Flood, according to Reuters.
This isn't the first time that people dressed up as sinister clowns have frightened locals. In 2014, Bakersfield, Calif., residents reported clowns roaming the streets. In 2013, Northampton, England, dealt with its own costumed menace.
Clowns make big news. When reports rolled in that clowns (armed, in some cases) were scaring Bakersfield residents, the story was splashed across newspapers nationwide.
"If I were living in Wasco (near Bakersfield), I would move out immediately," wrote Jezebel writer Mark Shrayber. "Nothing good comes from clowns. Nothing good will ever come from clowns."
At least one individual was arrested for the Bakersfield appearances. The teenager involved said that it was merely a hoax.
Northampton's clown was a little more friendly, posing for photographers, chased by a fellow costumed individual (and possibly the same person) called "Boris the Clown Catcher."
While harmless, these prank-like appearances made people nervous, something that Becvar says is inherently contrary to a trained clown's nature. Clowns are taught to interact with children in a way that does not frighten them, he says.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.