Stop the madness! How NJ teacher squashed the clown scare of ’91
Another day, another half-dozen clown sightings in New Jersey. When will it end?
This isn’t the first time phantom clowns have unnerved the Garden State. There were reports of terrifying clowns in the 1980s and again in the late 90s. And it's happened all over the country.
The most recent clown-sighting hysteria began in August in North and South Carolina. Police there turned up no evidence and were unable to substantiate any of the numerous reported cases.
No doubt thanks to the internet, the bogus “sightings” now have spread as far as Oregon.
I'll always remember one incident in 1991, when I was in the first grade at Hurden-Looker Elementary School. My classmates were abuzz with talk of a creepy clown lurking in the halls and stalls of our dreary turn-of-the-century school in the Newark suburb of Hillside.
That year, the inspiration for our vivid imaginations was a combination of the Stephen King “It” miniseries and Damon Wayans' Homey the Clown from Fox’s “In Living Color.”
Go ahead, laugh.
I can remember walking with a friend to the boy’s restroom in the basement — a perfect horror movie setting with its exposed pipes and wiring and dark janitor closets — and gleefully checking the empty restroom for any signs of a clown. We heard a noise. We thought we saw something. We ran away squealing.
Pretty soon, almost everyone had a clown sighting story — and the teachers started to notice.
So one day, after a couple of frightened girls ran back from the restroom, Miss Gonzalez finally addressed our class.
And she told us to knock it off.
“I’ve spoken to the principal and he told me that no clowns have been at Hurden-Looker. There are no clowns in Hillside! Capeesh?”
And that was the end of that. Because Miss Gonzalez was literally the adult in the room.
No concerned parents at school board meetings. No lockdowns. No Eyewitness News van outside our school.
We just went on with the school year, clown free.
Fast forward to 2016. Now it’s not just kids who think they're seeing clowns. It's the adults running to the police.
And after each report the police issue a news release about the uncorroborated sightings, resulting in more headlines that fuel the hysteria further.
In the schools, the grown-ups seem to be more frightened than we ever were as 5-year-olds.
In response to unverified online rumors, school administrators in Long Island suspended recess. Could someone dressed as a clown really manage to lure any child off a supervised school playground? While I haven't checked every newspaper archive in the country, the last time a clown abducted a child on this side of a movie screen appears to have been ... never.
But that hasn't stopped the media from posting headlines that report these "sightings" almost as fact. Here's a selection from a Google search Tuesday afternoon:
The first clown report in New Jersey, as far as I can tell, began with the State Police, which early last month posted a picture of Tim Curry’s nightmarish Pennywise the Clown to their sometimes-humorous Facebook page.
“There’s been a lot of talk about creepy clown sightings these days. It’s true,” our State Police said.
It’s “true”? Well, no.
As an editor, I remember passing on this story, thinking that it would needlessly confuse and scare people.
But a New York television station couldn't resist. Their headline: “NJ State Police warn parents about possible creepy clown sightings.”
It wasn't long before I saw that story shared several times on my Facebook feed.
Writing in his regular Psychology Today column on "social panics, popular delusions and mass suggestion," Robert Bartholomew last month said "Stalking Clown folklore has been with us for decades and appears to be part of the ‘Stranger Danger’ moral panic of the 1980s."
While Bartholomew says police should certainly investigate reports of harassing clowns, he adds that these supposed sightings should be treated skeptically.
"Sighting clusters typically begin with a dramatic initial report or rumor, followed by saturation media coverage. Local residents begin to scrutinize their environment for evidence of this new threat, and begin to redefine ambiguous stimuli within their new stalking clown mind set."
In South River, meanwhile, police have taken to Facebook to ask teens and adults to not dress up as clowns in public.
"The risk exists that someone may perceive these actions to be a threat and take justice into their own hands," the department said Tuesday.
A lot has changed since 1991. But we could still use Miss Gonzalez.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email email@example.com.
Also on New Jersey 101.5: