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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Clown hysteria makes its way to the Inland Northwest

 (Brian Moriarty / Flickr)

At about 7 p.m. Sunday, 14-year-old Brooklyn Bergquist claims she was chased by a young man wearing a light-up clown mask while she was walking home near East 44th Avenue and South Bowdish Road in Spokane Valley. She ran to a friend’s house and called her mom.

That same night, 17-year-old Tyler Clinedinst claims to have been chased by a clown wielding a pair of knives on the Centennial Trail between Lake City High School and Bluegrass Park in Coeur d’Alene. He quickly fled to a friend’s house, whose mother called the police.

For the past few months, Anne Long, who lives in the Emerson-Garfield Neighborhood area of Spokane, has regularly seen a clown in her alley.

“One time I was in my yard and he just kind of glanced over at me,” the 65-year-old said. “I can’t tell if it’s makeup or a mask.”

These sightings, while unsettling on their own, follow a national trend of “creepy clowns” popping up across the United States. Clown sightings have been reported in at least 10 states, including Idaho and Washington. Reports of clowns and clown-related threats have surfaced in Lynnwood, Puyallup, Tacoma and Moses Lake, in addition to Spokane and Coeur d’Alene.

It all began on Aug. 21 in Greenville, South Carolina, where police investigated a clown with white face paint attempting to lure children into the woods. Since then, a wave of clown hysteria has washed over people’s collective imaginations and phobias, peaking these past few weeks. Multiple news outlets have reported mostly nonviolent clown-related activity, while others have simply written it off as a giant hoax.

Still, the hysteria has had an impact, especially on schools. On Monday, students at some Moses Lake School District schools spent the morning inside the gymnasium before classes started after a student reported receiving a threatening message from a “clown account.” Rogers High School in Puyallup was briefly locked down Tuesday after a sighting of a “creepy clown.”

A Connecticut school district recently announced a ban on clown costumes during this year’s Halloween, amid an investigation by police into the validity of clown-related social media posts.

Students at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, reported seeing multiple clowns around campus, prompting several students to roam the parking lots with bats. Students at Washington State University apparently snapped a picture of a clown in a white costume near the university’s Greek Row. One WSU student tweeted Monday, “100+ frat boys roaming Greek row with golf clubs looking for the killer clown. Never felt safer.”

But it’s the validity of eyewitness reports and the ease in which someone can pose as a clown on the internet that has some skeptical – even real clowns.

Sherrie Martin, a professional clown of four years and the owner of Ariel Spokane Performance Art, said she thinks the whole craze is just the internet overreacting.

“Anyone I interact with, that I work on clown with, isn’t reporting any of these experiences to me,” she said. “I’m only seeing this in the media and social media.”

She has a point. Thousands of people took to Twitter with the hashtag #IfISeeAClown to vent their fears and frustration with clowns and the recent clown hysteria. A video of a clown chasing a pair of men was shared more than 18 million times. And the search term “Clown” skyrocketed on Google in the past week.

Famed horror author Stephen King – who penned “It,” a story about a killer clown – even joined in, tweeting Monday, “Hey, guys, time to cool the clown hysteria – most of em are good, cheer up the kiddies, make people laugh.”

Insane Clown Posse, a rap duo out of Detroit who dress up in clown makeup and have a dedicated fan base called “juggalos,” have also taken to social media to denounce the recent hysteria on Twitter, saying it’s “a giant hoax.” They tweeted a link to a recent Rolling Stones article, which lambasts the clown sightings as just that: a hoax.

Law enforcement officials, however, have taken sightings seriously, albeit with a grain of salt. Officials in Cheney, Spokane and Coeur d’Alene all confirmed having received phone calls related to clowns in the past few days, but so far, no arrests have been made.

Gary Gasseling, deputy chief of Eastern Washington University Police Department, said his department takes all calls seriously, but that hasn’t stopped him and other officers from joking about the ridiculousness of the “clown craze.” He said he was somewhat shocked and amazed to find out how many students at EWU were talking about clowns.

“With everything else that’s wrong in this world, we’re worrying about creepy clowns. There’s absolutely nothing illegal about dressing up as a clown,” Gasseling said.

Most people online have posted benign jokes or humorous pictures or GIFs (a compression format for images) making light of the situation. But some have taken a more sinister route, saying they would hurt or kill a clown if they saw one.

“I swear to God if I see a clown, and im driving, I’m gonna run that ***** over,” one Twitter user wrote. Others on the internet have flat-out said they’ll shoot someone wearing a clown costume and “won’t lose sleep over it.”

And it’s reactions like this that have law enforcement officials most on edge – especially with Halloween around the corner.

“I’m worried that some juvenile or younger adult will go running around in clown costumes,” said Spokane County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Gregory. “Because of the hysteria and tension or fear people are having, something could happen and somebody could get hurt.”

Gregory said he’d personally taken a couple clown-related calls from concerned residents. He said two were second-hand – of somebody they knew seeing a clown – and the other was of somebody seeing a social media post of a clown online.

And unlike the three armed men dressed as clowns who were arrested in Belmont County, Ohio, Gregory said the clown activity in Spokane has been mostly tame, from what he can tell.

“As far as I know, we have not identified or caught anyone in a clown costume,” he said. “It’s merely people in clown stuff.”