Professional clowns plead for tolerance in wake of killer-clown threats

Tricia Manuel

Tricia Manuel

It’s all Stephen King’s fault.

At least, that’s how many professional clowns see the current wave of creepy clown threats that have authorities closing schools, arresting pranksters for creating public panics, and chasing clown sightings across the country.

The best-selling horror writer penned the 1986 novel “It” about a murderous being who often appeared as a demonic clown called Pennywise. A slew of killer-clown movies followed, including a 1990 flick based on “It.”

“They were terrible and awful movies, but they became cult movies that imparted this tremendous fear into people,” said Holly Prescott, 62, of Bethlehem, who spent 35 years working professionally as Jolly Holly” the clown. “So clowns — iconically lovely, warm-hearted, kind people — morphed into these murderous people with blood dripping out of their mouths. When I would do birthday parties, people would be screaming, running away from me. And I’m a nice-looking clown! People would say: ‘Can you not wear the clown costume?’ It tore my heart out.”

But that was three decades ago, so what’s driving the current creepy-clown craze?

Maybe it’s the “It” remake, set for release next fall. Or the abundance of killer-clown costumes in costume shops. Or just the quirks of the modern human psyche.

“People know clowns are supposed to be good and fun, but these (killer clowns) are really not, and that psychological twist stimulates people,” Prescott said.

Or maybe it boils down to something as basic as a mob mentality fueled by boredom and social media, one local clown theorized.

“You had 6,000 people at Penn State chasing a clown” last week, said Elaine Bowne, a Conshohocken woman who works as “Freckles” the clown. “It’s a fad almost, something to do, and it’s not good.”

Prescott, Bowne and other clowns say they’ve toned down their makeup and costumes – or gone without entirely – to appear friendlier. They’ve changed routines, donning costumes on location rather than risk terrifying passers-by on their way to a performance or party.

Clown fears — officially called coulrophobia — also have also driven clown schools to expand training beyond balloon-twisting, magic tricks, face-painting, slapstick, and comedy routines.

“It’s something that I teach now — how to deal with people who are afraid of clowns, how to tell the difference between someone who is truly afraid or someone who is just looking for attention, how to keep an eye open during performances to make sure you don’t startle anyone or blunder into a situation where someone is not welcoming of a clown,” said Tricia Manuel, a former Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey clown who now runs a clown-training camp and sells clowning gear in Minnesota.

But make no mistake: The creepy clowns now scaring America — and beyond — are not clowns, Manuel said.

“They’re terrorists in a creepy clown mask is what they are,” said Manuel, who still clowns as Pricilla Mooseburger and Miss Moose. “If you want to be scared, you buy a ticket, you go to a movie, you go to a haunted house — you have a choice to do that. And you should have that choice. But what people are doing right now is terrorism. I know that may sound a little extreme, but with what our country has been through since 9/11, people don’t need to feel terrorized in their own community. It’s just so wrong, and I really hope they prosecute these people to the Nth degree.”

World Clown Association President Randy Christensen appealed for calm and encouraged professional clowns to stay positive in a YouTube video posted online last month.

“Whoever is doing this crazy stuff is not a clown. This is somebody that’s trying to use a good, clean wholesome art form and then distorting it, trying to gain access to a child,” Christensen said.

Police locally and nationally have arrested people for making clown threats, but have reported no substantiated attacks by clowns.

Instead, the reverse is true: Professional clowns say they feel under attack, as backlash from the mass hysteria has made them targets of public scorn.

“Can you imagine if you were doing your job, and someone walked up to you and said: ‘I hate you!’” Manuel said. “Most of us are doing it for volunteer reasons. Costumes and makeup aren’t cheap, and we put a lot of money and effort and schooling into what we do to do it well. And to have perfect strangers just walk up and verbally assault us, it’s like: ‘Wow, are you kidding me?!’ We’re the epitome of bullying. We look different, our hair color is different, our skin color is different, and you just spewed hate at us. Isn’t that what we’re trying to teach our children not to do?”

Stephen King, meanwhile, joined the clown conversation recently, tweeting last week: “Hey, guys, time to cool the clown hysteria — most of em are good, cheer up the kiddies, make people laugh.”


Hey, guys, time to cool the clown hysteria–most of em are good, cheer up the kiddies, make people laugh.

— Stephen King (@StephenKing) October 3, 2016


Manuel appreciated the sentiment, saying: “I don’t think he could have possibly envisioned what would happen with this movie or this character. I don’t think it was his intention to ruin clowning. As a writer, it was very cleverly done. It’s just the fallout.”

Still, she added, she won’t be in line to watch the “It” remake, nor buy King’s latest works.

“I’m into joyful things, positive and happy things,” she said. “I would rather laugh, and go see a fun, positive, upbeat kind of thing, than be scared.”

And the current clown fears won’t doom clowning, she added.

“There’s still hope for clowning because everybody still needs to laugh, and people are still going to need cheering-up in nursing homes and hospitals, and little kids are still going want to laugh at big floppy shoes and red noses. We’ll get through this.”

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