Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles If you’re watching local news right now, it’s hard to avoid stories like this one: "A clown started chasing us up here." "On Facebook they said there was killer clowns around here that were killing people." We saw a man with all black on, clown mask on, and like a red wig. This wave of clown panic started in late August, when police in South Carolina received reports about a suspicious character dressed as a clown who was trying to get children to follow them into the woods. Residents reportedly took matters into their own hands and began firing shots into the woods. “We do know that it’s striking fear among members of our public. And so we have patrols out in each of these areas and wherever we think we might anticipate that person. We've added patrols to see if we can intercept the person and the activity." Since then, police around the country have been inundated with complaints about clown sightings, and prank calls falsely reporting sightings. Residents in some communities are asking if they’re allowed to shoot clowns on site. “You’re under arrest for disorderly conduct." "I was not scaring nobody, I promise you." "Alright, how did we get a 911 call?" "I just came out the door, I swear." As you can hear the police officer saying, the arrests are usually made for disorderly conduct, though some states also have anti-mask laws that prevent people from concealing their identities in public. The consequences of these copy-cat pranks are playing out in a very real way. Schools in several states have been put on lockdown after threats from people posing as clowns on social media and word-of-mouth reports of clown sightings. On top of that, one student in Georgia was arrested for bringing a knife to school to defend herself against clowns, and another in Virginia was arrested for posting a request on social media for a clown to kill her teacher. At Penn State, hundreds of students flooded the streets in search of clowns that had allegedly been seen around campus — though police reported that there were no credible sightings or threats. Turns out the clown backlash may be more dangerous than the pranksters themselves. At the end of September, a 16-year-old who was allegedly scaring neighborhood kids while wearing a clown mask was stabbed to death after a confrontation. Now, this isn’t the first time things like this have happened. As recently as 2014 there was a similar clown craze in the U.S. that became a small social media trend and spread to France. But the roots of people dressing up as clowns as a prank are a lot older than social media. In 1981 in neighborhoods around Boston, police received over 20 calls about children having seen mysterious clowns. Local schools panicked. Police questioned a clown they believed to be the one children had seen, only to find that he had just been making rounds to department stores as part of his job. A few days later, police in Kansas City were flooded with an estimated 60 to 100 calls about a “demon clown” scaring children, armed with a knife. Parents were on edge after a local parochial school sent home a note warning them about a “killer clown” — but police weren’t able to find any real threat, and blamed the hype on prank calls and children’s imaginations. Now, all of this happened just a year after John Wayne Gacy was charged with the murders of 33 people, mostly adolescents, committed over the course of the previous decade. Gacy worked as a clown for charity — so there was a lot of preexisting fear around this image of a dangerous clown. And for the next 25 years, appearances kept happening. East Chicago in 1991 Washington DC in 1994, South Brunswick in 1997. When you think about what first made people afraid of clowns, it’s tempting to pin it to Gacy or movies like “It,” “Poltergeist,” and “Killer Klowns from Outer Space”. But to understand how clowns gained the dark associations that they have today, you have to go back to the British Regency era, back when a clown named Joseph Grimaldi was the most popular entertainer in England. If you look at the costumes that he wore, you can see how he invented a lot of the classic “clown” look as we know it today: the colorful hair, the extravagant clothes, the white face makeup. But Grimaldi rose to stardom at a time when what it meant to be famous in pop culture was changing. "An interest in celebrity culture began to emerge, you know, people were interested in the personal lives of people that they saw in public. So being a public person was no longer enough, people wanted to know about the private individual and the secret and potentially scandalous aspects of their private life." And that private life had a dark side: Grimaldi suffered from depression and alcoholism. When he was first starting out as a writer, Charles Dickens edited Grimaldi’s memoirs, and later immortalized a version of that disturbed clown character in his first novel, the Pickwick Papers. The image stuck, even though entertainment went through some major changes. Slapstick clown humor had always worked well in situations where you couldn’t always fully see or hear what a performer was doing, like in large auditoriums or in movies without sound. As mainstream culture changed, clowns became darker characters. “Think of a wildly popular clown who's very highly visible in popular culture — there isn't one, or rather there are two: There’s the Joker, who’s a sinister psychopath, and there’s Krusty the Clown, who’s morally, financially, and physically bankrupt…" "Oh I don't know what you're saying, it all sounds so crazy to me." "So the days of Howdy Doody and others figures are unfortunately gone.” “I do have some sympathy for the clowning community I mean their numbers have dwindled and then they really have been reduced to a children's party performers and ... that's quite a considerable demotion from the place that they've occupied in our culture really for two thousand years if not longer, into ancient classical history.” "We wanna encourage people who may be inclined to dress in clown outfits not to do it. And to avoid doing it at all." A lot of police statements have made sure to clarify that these aren’t “real clowns,” they’re people dressed as clowns. And while that might sound like a silly distinction, it’s actually really important for the professional clowning community. “It does frustrate us because we work very hard at our art form, and we take it very seriously. It brings clowning a bad light as a profession.” Traditional professional clowning is in a rough spot. Membership in the World Clown Association, which is the nation’s biggest trade group for clowns, reportedly dropped from about 3,500 in 2004 to 2,500 in 2014. And since the latest wave of sightings, many professional clowns are afraid to make public appearances. Some have even canceled events out of fear for their own safety. “I’m more afraid for the clown than I am for the citizens, because everybody down here got guns. I don’t want to be the one to ride up on you and have an encounter with you, because I don't think it's gonna end well.” If you want a better idea of the scale of the clown prank epidemic that's going on right now, you should go over to Atlas Obscura. This guy named Erik Shilling has put together this interactive map that looks at all of the sightings, all of the reports, and all of the false reports that have come out in recent weeks. I haven't tried to count everything on this map, but there is a lot.