The reports to the police had one thing in common with the circus act involving an improbable number of clowns emerging from a small car.
They just kept coming, and coming, and coming, across multiple states. Clowns in vans. Clowns in the woods. Clowns lurking in the shadows. Clowns chasing people or doing crimes.
But in recent weeks, steady police work has turned the news around, with 12 people facing charges of making false reports or threats, or chasing people, the authorities said. Other cases seem attributable to children with overactive imaginations, teenagers pulling pranks and others with their own reasons for adding to the hysteria. At least one death has been linked to a clown hoax.
The first reports of unusual clown sightings surfaced late in August in Greenville County, S.C., with stories that the costumed figures were offering children money to lure them into the woods or were lingering in places and giving residents the heebie-jeebies.
From there, the reports became a contagion, with sightings claimed in at least six other states: Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Even as the police were unable to verify the reports, they proliferated.
The drumbeat of negative publicity even prompted the Ali Ghan Shriners Club’s clown unit in Maryland to withdraw from a parade planned for October in Hagerstown, said Tom Holland, a member of the group, in an interview with The Cumberland Times-News on Wednesday.
The experts weighed in with explanations. David G. Myers, a professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Mich., attributed the epidemic of sightings to “mass hysteria” as people’s fears and feelings fed on one another. Jason D. Seacat, an associate professor of psychology at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass., suggested another motive for the outbreak: a need for people to feel connected to a news event that had garnered national headlines.
“Since the event appears to be difficult to verify, the claim that one has had such an encounter is easier to make and relatively free from the risk of being called out as a fraud,” he said in an email. “So, low risk of being called out for lying and the benefit of positive attention for reporting such a claim may motivate some people to lie.”
But that low risk has evaporated as the police have worked to get to the bottom of the reports. Among the cases:
• The Troup County Sheriff’s Office in LaGrange, Ga., about 70 miles southwest of Atlanta, said deputies on Sept. 14 investigated a report of people dressed as clowns and standing near a white van. They found a driver who said he had run out of gas. Deputies who searched the van found no costumes in or around the vehicle, the office said on Facebook.
When the authorities interviewed the person who called in the sightings, Brandon J. Moody, 26, they said that he admitted to making up the story. He also implicated his sister-in-law, Rebecca Moody, 27, in calling 911 about seeing clowns.
The pair were charged with obstruction and unlawful conduct during a 911 call, the sheriff’s office said. Neither could be reached to comment.
In another incident in LaGrange, the police said on Facebook that they had issued warrants for four people on charges of making terroristic threats and disrupting public schools after officials received “numerous” Facebook messages on Sept. 12 about individuals dressed as clowns threatening to commit acts of violence at three schools.
The police noted that “significant resources” had been committed to respond to the threats by both law enforcement and the schools.
“The suspects indicated that they would be dressed as ‘creepy clowns’ and would be driving a white van,” the department said. Officers received numerous calls of “creepy clowns” in different areas of the city but found none, the police said.
The identities of the subjects of the warrants were not immediately available. It was not clear on Wednesday if arrests had been made.
The department said in a separate Facebook post that it had received calls about clowns in a van trying to talk to children in wooded areas.
“This behavior is not cute or funny,” a police statement said. “Understand that if officers see this behavior, you’re going to have a conversation with them.”
• On Sept. 15, in Flomaton, Ala., about 65 miles northeast of Mobile, the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office and Flomaton Police Department received reports of what they believed to be credible threats to students at Flomaton High School via a Facebook account belonging to “Flomo Klown” and “Shoota Cllown,” officials said on Facebook.
Schools were locked down while officials searched the buildings, officials said. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the police from Alabama and Florida got involved. Makayla Smith, 22, of Flomaton, was charged with making a terrorist threat, the police said. Two juveniles, whose names were not released, were also found to have been involved. Charges are pending against them.
• In Beauregard, Ala., about 60 miles east of Montgomery, a 16-year-old high school student was charged with making terrorist threats on Sept. 21, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and the Opelika Police Department said on Facebook.
The girl, whose name was not released, used a Facebook page called “Kaleb Klown” and wrote about going to area schools with a firearm, and threatening the school, the television station WRBL reported.
• Henrico County Police in Virginia said two teenagers face charges after they chased children while wearing clown masks in Henrico, about 10 miles east of Richmond, on Wednesday.
• In Annapolis, Md., four students, ages 7 to 9, who said they had seen clowns on their way to school were re-interviewed on Sept. 20 by the police, who learned those reports were unfounded, The Washington Post reported. Other creepy clown sightings have been reported in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
• And lest anyone think the police are overreacting, at least one death has been linked to an apparent clown hoax. In Reading, Pa., a 16-year-old boy was fatally stabbed on Sunday after a confrontation that may have been provoked by prowler wearing a clown mask, The Associated Press reported.