On Friday, a coworker walked into my office and asked a question you don’t hear every day.
“So is it true about the clowns?” she asked. “Are they here?”
Now since I’ve never walked a tightrope and I don’t travel with elephants, I had no idea why she’d think clowns would be here, where we work in Mattituck.
Then I checked my inbox and noticed that several people had already sent me emails about crazed clowns coming to the North Fork to terrorize people. The killer clowns, I would soon learn, were the latest social media hoax phenomenon, scaring children and parents and forcing journalists to write stories about “unconfirmed and unsubstantiated reports.”
For me, this clown hoax, which was picked up by each local media outlet that afternoon following a press release from Suffolk County police, was about the silliest thing I’ve read in a while. But for kids, apparently, it was a scary ordeal — or at least an attempt to act frightened to maybe get out of school. Bueller, anyone?
“My kids are texting me sh—ing their pants,” read an email I received from another coworker. “They said [the clowns] are coming to Greenport.”
We used to call that the circus.
Creepy clown sightings had been reported across several states in recent weeks as part of a spreading social media prank, unnerving residents in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio, according to news reports.
The New York Times wrote that at least a dozen people had been arrested for making false reports of creepy clowns to perpetuate the hoax.
The news hit locally, too, when a 15-year-old girl reported being harassed by an unknown person with a clown mask and costume near Little Leaf Court in Wading River. The alleged incident took place about 5 p.m. last Wednesday, but police said it wasn’t reported until Sunday. The mask and costume were recovered and turned over to the police property section, according to a police report.
Southold Town police said Friday that no suspicious clown activity had been reported there. But Suffolk County police received two reports of people dressed as frightening clowns in North Babylon and Brentwood Wednesday night, according to Newsday.
Police later said they’d found no evidence those incidents occurred.
Still, the county police chief deemed it important to notify the public.
“We understand this may be a social media prank throughout the country, but we take quite seriously all calls that involve intentional harassment, trespassing, disturbing of the peace, and reported activity that results in the citizens of our county feeling threatened,” Chief Stu Cameron said.
For the first 13 years of my life, the thought that a clown could be threatening never once crossed my mind. It wasn’t until “The Opera” episode of “Seinfeld” aired and I was introduced to “Pagliacci” and Crazy Joe Davola that it even dawned on me other people might be scared of them.
Reading up on the subject this week I learned, thanks to a 2013 article published in The Atlantic, that a fear of clowns actually predates “Pagliacci” and has its roots in the 1849 Edgar Allan Poe story “Hop-Frog,” in which a tormented and physically deformed court jester sets a king and his court of noblemen on fire. Of course, serial killer John Wayne Gacy certainly did his part to set clowns back even further in more recent years.
Still, I asked myself this week what I would do if I saw a group of clowns walking around the streets of Greenport, as was rumored to happen. The truth is, I’d probably just laugh. There are too many real things to be worried about these days to pay any attention to a bunch of practical jokers in oversized shoes and face paint.
I did, however, reach back out to my colleague to ask how she handled her kids’ panic that clowns were about to terrorize them in school.
“I told them to play dead,” she replied.
It’s advice we all might want to follow next time we hear about creepy clowns coming to town.
The author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].