A Crookston teen dressed as a clown allegedly chased people with a butcher knife. A Hopkins girl posed on Facebook as “Kroacky Klown” and threatened to kill, police said. Both Minnesota teens were arrested in the past week, but the damage was done. As a creepy crown craze sweeps the Midwest both in social media and now in person, images of people in gruesome clown masks are giving real clowns a bad rap.
Minnesota clowns say these wicked-looking impostors, fueled by the internet, are losing them business, impeding their safety and taking all of the fun out of the art form. It’s not just scary, they say; it’s sad.
“It breaks our hearts,” said Fred Baisch, a clown and magician. “It’s destroying all the goodwill that clowns have created over the years.”
Baisch, of St. Paul, nearly lost a gig at a child’s birthday party after the most recent scare involving a Bloomington girl who posed online as a clown and made violent threats. Instead of coming in character as the clown “Ozzie,” Baisch will perform his magic act in a tux.
“The parents didn’t want to create more anxiety for the kids,” he said.
Real clowns, who spend years training and perfecting their craft, have long dealt with the stigma of the scary clown trope. Now it’s getting worse, said Tricia Manuel, who for 20 years has run Mooseburger Clown Arts Camp, the nation’s pre-eminent clown training program, here in Minnesota. People dressed up as scary clowns have popped up recently in at least 23 states, and in some situations, their pranks have turned violent.
“This really threatens what we do,” said Manuel, a former Ringling Bros. clown who owns a costume shop in Maple Lake. “It’s going to threaten my business. It’s going to threaten my clowns.”
Just as dolls took a sinister turn with the introduction of the possessed Chucky doll in the “Child’s Play” films and sweet blond children started giving people goose bumps because of “Children of the Corn,” the “innocent, joyful” clown has been “twisted” by popular culture, Manuel said.
“The fear factor of a trusted image turned bad freaks people out,” she said.
So why does it keep resurfacing? “It sells.”
For kids, seeing images from the world of fantasy turn scary can be the origin of a lifelong phobia, according to Abigail Gewirtz, a family social science professor at the University of Minnesota.
“When what happens in fantasies, like in movies, intersects with what happens in reality, that is absolutely terrifying,” Gewirtz said.
Parents should be careful not to make things worse by “infecting your child with your own anxiety,” she said.
The children who would encounter a real clown at a party are probably too young to be exposed to the latest hype online and in the news, she said. But for those children who are newly afraid of clowns after the recent local incidents, listening is the best remedy. If a party with a clown is coming up, don’t avoid it.
“Affirm that they seem really scared, and then help the child cope with it,” Gewirtz said. Look at pictures of clowns, go to the party together and hold hands, meet the clown. Let the clowns do their thing: “These are people who want to bring some light into children’s lives.”
October tends to be a challenging month for clowns because their stigma gets amplified by Halloween, and the scary clown hoaxes that cycle back this time of year.
Manuel, aka “Miss Moose,” has advised other clowns to tone down their makeup when fall comes around to make sure their joy-based intentions are clear.
“We’re going to be a little more cautious, vet the situation before we arrive, and just be very careful so that what we do isn’t misunderstood,” she said.
Some clowns are fighting back. In Tucson, Ariz., professional clowns are organizing a “Clown Lives Matter” march this weekend.
But clown instructor Neal Skoy of Minneapolis said he’ll be dropping his character’s circus look for the time being to focus more on vaudeville and silent film characterswho wear less makeup.
“Obviously, it hurts,” he said. “It’s definitely a knock to the profession that a lot of people take seriously and work really hard to honor.”
One way to tell whether a clown is actually just a copycat is to note the artistry. Real clowns pride themselves on the meticulous detail that goes into their appearance, which stems from a long theatrical tradition.
“I am all for the police collecting up these people in rubber masks and getting them off the street,” Baisch said. “Because no self-respecting clown would appear in a rubber mask.”