Phantom Clowns: Pied Piper of Hamelin

As I mentioned previously, one of the benefits of all the current media interest in the Phantom Clowns this time around are the historic overviews that are being revealed.

An old article that is being revisited is one by folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand.  Brunvand had just published a new collection, Curses! Broiled Again, and then wrote the following review of 1981 and 1985 cases, plus taking a then-contemporary look at some new 1991 Phantom Clowns encounters. While the article is important as it did review past recent events, it also reminded people that these stories go back to the Pied Piper of Hamelin folktales, dating from 1300 A.D.

Killer-clown rumors surfaced briefly again in 1985, then faded until this June [1991] – exactly 10 years after the first cycle of similar stories [in 1981].
This time the setting is New Jersey. My first report of the return of the phantom clowns came in a letter from West Orange, N.J., postmarked June 12 [1991]. I haven’t been able to decipher the signature, but I did manage to make out the message:
“My mom teaches school in South Orange, N.J., and the kids at school are all terrified by the rumor that there is someone dressed as a clown driving around kidnapping children. The story has grown to the point where the clown has a name, Homey, and now they are saying that there are a whole bunch of clowns riding around in a van.”
The next day I got a note from Joseph Zarra of Belleville, N.J., enclosing a clipping from the Newark Star-Ledger of an article headlined “Child-abducting ‘clown’ rumor persists in plaguing Essex towns.” It’s the same old story.
First-, second- and third-grade children in several communities were claiming that a van containing a clown, or several clowns, was cruising the streets looking for young victims to kill or abduct. The name “Homey” came from a character who frequently appears on the Fox network series In Living Color.
An East Orange police officer commented, “It just spread, from one kid to another, and continued until there was a kind of a hysteria.”
One child, who later retracted his story, told police that a clown holding a machete in one hand and an Uzi machine gun in the other fired five shots at him before he drove him off with his bookbag.
New Jersey police questioned 700 schoolchildren, many of them “petrified” by the rumors, but concluded, “We couldn’t substantiate the existence of a clown. We have no sightings, no assaults, no homicides.”
Mysterious America, a 1983 book by Loren Coleman, gives a good account of the 1981 phantom-clown scares. In May, reports of clowns riding in vans and threatening children surfaced in Boston and some of the surrounding communities. Shortly afterward the same story showed up in Providence, R.I.; Kansas City, Mo.; Kansas City, Kan.; Omaha, Neb.; Denver; and Pittsburgh.
Many of the children’s stories included specific details: They said that the vans were black, green, blue or yellow, and that the clowns were armed with swords, knives or guns.
The only other clown scare I’m aware of since that time occurred in late March 1985, when the Phoenix area experienced a brief period during which similar stories spread among local schoolchildren.
Although no police authorities anywhere have verified the existence of the phantom clowns, some people take the threat seriously. A warning circulated in a 1986 newsletter claimed that clowns were responsible for children being “spirited away to join the throngs of missing children whose pathetic faces peer at us from milk cartons, shopping bags and telephone bills.”
If child-abductors disguised as clowns exist, why do they cease their nefarious activities for such long periods of time? Who is sending in these clowns, and why don’t the police ever catch them?
Probably the source of the stories lies more in folklore than in actual crimes. Loren Coleman suggests a connection to the Pied Piper of Hamelin who, according to legend, lured away all the children of the German town, never to be seen again. ~ Jan Harold Brunvand, “Someone Keeps Sending in the Phantom Clowns,” Deseret News, August 9, 1991.

For more on the Pied Piper of Hamelin, see also here.

“Pied” refers to clothing “having two or more different colors,” the attire of a clown.

As has been noted by some comment makers, it is intriguing that a concentration of the recent reports have been in the Piedmont Triad in North Carolina. (See here and here.)