The 13th Floor

When Pennywise Was Real: The Phantom Clown Scare of 1981

When we look back, 1981 was certainly a banner year for horror. Aside from some of the best horror movies of all time coming out, including AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and EVIL DEAD, we had the nightmare inducing melting heads in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and the true arrival of Jason Voorhees in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II.

Outside of our local cinemas and drive-ins there was plenty of horror as well. Twenty three IRA members, including Bobby Sands, went on a hunger strike as a protest against their treatment while imprisoned by the British. It would end with ten of the men dying and riots across Northern Ireland.

Multiple world leaders were victims of assassination attempts, including Ronald Reagan, Queen Elizabeth II, Pope John Paul II, Anwar Sadat, and Ziaur Rahman. Both Sadat and Rahman were killed, and both Reagan and Pope John Paul II were badly injured. Queen Elizabeth II made it through her ordeal unscathed. Her attacker, a teenage boy, could only get his hands on blanks and decided that the threat of assassination would be enough.

Peter Sutcliffe, who terrorized England as the Yorkshire Ripper, was captured after murdering thirteen women. After his arrest, Sutcliffe would claim that he was following orders given to him by God. Shockingly, no one believed him.

Possibly the most frightening part of 1981 was the first recognized cases of AIDS appearing in Los Angeles in June. It is believed that the disease started in Haiti and made its way to the US as early as 1968, meaning that for over a decade an untold number of people died from a disease that went unnoticed.

These are the moments that history recorded. What is left out of almost all discussions of weird, terrible, and creepy things that went down in 1981. What you won’t find on Wikipedia or in textbooks is the strange story of the Phantom Clown Scare, even though the repercussions of it could be felt throughout the next twenty years.

Something important to remember is that before the 1980s there wasn’t that much concern about kids being kidnapped. It happened before the 1980s, but for whatever reason it wasn’t something parents were all that concerned about. Then again, if you look back on the life of a child growing up in America before 1984, you’ll see a world filled with rusty monkey bars, metal lunchboxes that could cause serious wounds, and no concept of bicycle safety. This isn’t to say that parents didn’t love their children, they just weren’t so concerned with their kids keeping all their limbs.

This all changed. At the tail end of April, things started happening that parents, principals, and teachers couldn’t ignore. Daniel O’Connell, a counselor for the Boston Public School District, sent out a memo about men dressed as clowns bothering children to all schools. Teachers were told to actually watch kids between taking drags on their cigarettes. Parents were warned to be aware of where their children were going after school.

On May 5th, the local news took an interest in the clowns after police in Brookline were alerted to men dressed as clowns trying to lure kids into a van with candy. The next day, Boston police were called out to Franklin Park and Jamaica Plain when children were harassed by men in clown gear, including one clown who was naked from the waist down.

Over the next few days more calls came in, from East Boston to Cambridge and throughout other cities in the area – every call said the same thing; clowns in a van are trying to get children to go with them. Police start pulling over any car or van with a clown in it, which there were apparently a lot of them in the Boston area in 1981, but all they found were birthday party clowns. By May 9th, police were questioning the veracity of these reports. As they went over the multitudes of accounts, officers realized that no adult ever saw these clowns, only children ages five to seven. At the same time, reports of creepy clowns in Boston slowed down.

A few weeks later, and a thousand miles away, in Kansas City, Kansas, police were called to investigate something directly out of a horror movie. A group of children claimed that they were chased by a clown who was carrying a sword. Similar reports were coming in from Kansas City Missouri. This time, police found the frightening jester. On May 22, police chased a clown in a yellow van who was seen at six different schools. Each school gave the same description of the clown – a man with a stark white wig, face painted black, bright round red nose, a black shirt with a devil on it, and black pants with candy canes running down the sides and big red shoes. The scariest part was what this freakish fool had with him – a large knife.

The yellow van eluded police and the clown vanished from the area. Still, many parents in Kansas City kept their kids home from school for weeks. The fear was very real, and these phantom clowns spread out further across the country with reports coming in from Omaha and Denver before heading back East to Pennsylvania.

School was out for summer, and the children of Pittsburgh were enjoying the days running about outdoors, riding their bikes and breaking arms or legs falling out of trees or jumping off of swings. On a fun summer vacation day in June in the Hill District, things took a turn when reports came in of two men in clown gear were stalking kids. At the same time, in a different part of the city, police chased a man in a pink rabbit costume who was harassing children. The chase started with the rabbit in his van, and continued when he hopped out of his vehicle and scampered away. Police chased the rabbit into a bar, where he vanished.

A week later, the rabbit was spotted in Allegheny Cemetery. Shortly after that, a boy in Arlington Heights claimed that Spider-Man, a gorilla and a clown tried to pull him into their van. The city was in a panic, leading to police searching Terrace Village, going house to house looking for signs of clowns, apes, and webslingers. Trailing behind the police were over a hundred children and parents, all of them carrying clubs. No costumed freaks were found.

Loren Coleman, a university professor who had a long standing interest in cryptozoology, was the first to start putting all these sightings together, which he collected in his book, Mysterious America. In the time before the internet, stories like this lived and died on local news channels, and most everyone wouldn’t notice the clown conspiracy happening across the country. Coleman, who looked for the strange in everything, caught it and found that it may have started even earlier in the year  back in March.

Mineral Point, Wisconsin, in the last week of March, was under attack by a vampire who stalked teens in Graceland Cemetery – in the 70s and 80s, it was common for teenagers to drink in cemeteries, and I imagine that is what these kids were doing. Unlike the vast majority of clowns, this bloodsucker was spotted by local police who described him as being large with his face painted white and wearing a cape. Reminiscent of London’s Spring Heeled Jack, Officer John Pepper claimed that the suspect jumped over a six foot barbed wire fence. This undead doof was the big story in Wisconsin for a short period – John Hinckley Jr’s shooting of Ronald Reagan would eclipse any interest people had in the Badger State Vampire.

As 1981 came to a close, the reports of phantom clowns faded away, and everyone pretty much forgot about it. England would have a similar problem later on, but with phantom social workers instead of clowns. In those cases, the phantom social worker would show up at the home and try to take someone’s baby. These phantom social workers always showed up in groups – usually a few women with a single man who was their “supervisor”. In many reports, police would conclude that the “examinations” these social workers would give the babies before trying to take them were akin to sexual abuse. As with the phantom clowns, no one has ever been arrested for these crimes.

The fear of our children being taken by strangers was huge in the 80s and 90s, and it is possible the child abduction fears that possessed America started with these clowns. Shows like Diff’rent Strokes would produce special episodes just to teach kids about what to do if a stranger tries to grab them. The fear of child abductions grew in tandem with parents worrying about Satanic cults, and were often intertwined – Satanists, some thought, were taking kids to sacrifice them to their evil overlord. By the time Stephen King published IT in 1986, the phantom clown scare of 1981 was all but forgotten.

In the years since the phantom clown scare of the 80s, clowns have been seen from time to time, and most of the time they have been people goofing around. In 2013, the terror of the clown began again, this time in Northampton, England which turned out to just be a guy having a bit of fun. Still, it seems that the Northampton Clown started a new wave of creepy clowns.

In 2014, residents of Bakersfield and Wasco, California reported a clown stalking them at night, sometimes while carrying a machete. This turned out to be an art project. I can only guess that the project was called “How to Make People Shit Their Pants”. If I had to guess, these clowns are people who grew up during the abduction scare of the 80s and 90s, as well as reading or seeing Stephen King’s IT and playing off these fears. It is, after all, how humans often overcome what they are scared by – we pull the teeth out of the monster and make it harmless. Creepy clowns set themselves up in front of landmarks so people can snap shots of them on the way home from the bar – something to put up on Facebook as a memory from an otherwise unremarkable night.

While the phantom clowns have been showing up again, so too has the Mineral Point Vampire. In 2004, Mineral Point police were called out on reports of a man leaping out of a tree and onto people trying to enter an apartment building. When the police arrived, a caped figure jumped from a tree and ran off. Police chased the man until he seemed to fly over a ten foot concrete wall.

In 2008, Brandon Heinz and his  girlfriend Jamie Marker were night fishing at Ludden Lake when they heard scratching under the jetty they were on. It sounded to them like an animal trying to climb up. Brandon stomped on the wood floor of the jetty to scare off the animal, but instead it seemed like the creature started to head towards the couple. Brandon shone his flashlight between the boards of the jetty. He and Jamie saw a man clinging to the underside of the jetty, his face white and his body covered with a cape. As the caped man climbed over the jetty, Jamie took off running. Brandon, too frightened to move, watched as the Mineral Point Vampire edged towards him. Finally getting his senses about him, Brandon threw his flashlight at the white faced freak and ran after Jamie.

When Brandon caught up to Jamie, she was sitting in the car, doors locked. Brandon jumped into the car and started it up. In the headlights of the car, Brandon and Jamie could see the vampire rushing towards them. Brandon put the car into gear and drove off. By the time police arrived at the scene, there were no signs of the Mineral Point Vampire.

We live in a time of reboots and remakes, so I have to wonder, could the “clown scare” of today be a reboot of the clown scare of the 80s? It certainly has one similarity to most horror reboots; it isn’t nearly as scary as the original.

*Photo: iStock, Header Photo: Stephen King’s IT (1990) Warner Home Video