For Every Generation, a Clown Hoax

My scariest Halloween season was the spring and summer of 1981.

Thirty-five years ago, a clown panic started in Boston (not at all unlike the current one that’s spread across the country and beyond). I was a six-year-old kindergartner. Stories spread across the region by the local news and word of mouth, and by the time the panic reached my home town of Beverly, I was told to be wary of:

  • Clowns driving vans, because they might kidnap me; and
  • Clowns driving ice cream trucks, because they would give me LSD-laced temporary tattoos.

These were not schoolyard rumors. As I recently confirmed with my mother, these were actual warnings from adults.

When summer vacation hit, lazing in the shade often included the trading and embellishment of stories of “the Clowns.” Older kids provided irrefutable details of the Clowns’ fantastic and grotesque practices. By mid-summer, when the ice cream truck visited our neighborhood, we did not know whether to run for money or run for cover.

Our neighborhood panic hit its crescendo when an older kid told us that she had, in fact, seen the Clowns. That’s when I became an accessory after the fact to a false police report. While I do not remember the emergency call being placed, I do remember the arrival of the Beverly Police Department squad car.

I give belated thanks to the officer who helped restore order and calm to the pack of kids in our little neighborhood. While the region’s police departments had never been able to substantiate the original or copycat clown stories, these details had not reached the kid population.

While fear of the Clowns dissipated, clown dread only grew over the years. When Poltergeist arrived on cable in 1983, our neighbors hosted a viewing party for the Steven Spielberg haunted house movie. I was eight, and it was terrifying. The movie features dozens of ghosts, a killer tree, and a 50-foot closet skeleton. Anyone who saw this movie as a kid knows that the scariest monster is Robbie’s possessed life-size toy clown. When I close my eyes, I can still hear it cackling as its arms stretch out to attack.

The march of the scary clowns in popular culture continued unabated. Tim Burton used clowns in the nightmare sequences of 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Evil clowns were featured in alternative comics, and then, mainstream comics. Stephen King’s It showed up first as a 1986 book about an evil clown, then as a 1990 TV movie that was the main topic of conversation at my Beverly High School cafeteria table the following Monday. The movie was so scary it made helium balloons seem threatening.

By 1990, creepy clowns were so entrenched in the culture that they could be used for satirical effect on The Simpsons, in the form of the murderous Sideshow Bob. By the time I graduated High school in 1993, the thought that clowns were for children’s birthday parties was a joke.

To me, though, Beverly’s version of the clowns remain the scariest. I have not discussed the clowns with anyone in 30 years, but they’ve remained alive in the recesses of my mind. I expect the clowns live on in my classmates’ minds a well.

Hollywood already rebooted Poltergeist. They are in the process of rebooting Stephen King’s It.

So there should be no surprise that we are dealing with a rebooted clown panic.

I live in San Francisco now, and I have a six-year-old son of my own. Three weeks ago we received a letter from his school’s acting superintendent. With familiarity, I read of a clown threat at one of the San Francisco Unified School District’s schools. The threat was considered a hoax. Parents and students should not panic. Nevertheless, the San Francisco Police Department was aware of the situation.

After much thought, I am not going to discuss this with my son unless he brings it up. The clown panic has created a situation where at least one of his friends at a neighboring school is afraid to go trick-or-treating. Reflecting on my own history with the Beverly Clowns, I do not want to create fear where none currently exists.

Our kids are growing up in a post-It world, and warning my son about clowns is as unnecessary a warning him about werewolves: they are automatically scary. If we do encounter clowns when we go trick-or-treating, I may hasten my step. And we definitely won’t accept any temporary tattoos.

Happy Halloween!