Officials caution kids and parents amid ‘scary clown’ phenomenon as Halloween approaches

By on October 26, 2016

Real clowns impacted by negative public reaction


A spotlight in recent months, even wrangled over during the vitriolic Trump-Clinton debates, has emerged on police profiling.

And while political views vary, there’s one group the public appears united in openly discriminating against based solely on appearance.

That would be scary clowns.

This phenomenon — where creepy clowns stand on street corners and unnerve passersby — has panicked the public and alarmed schools, elected officials, and law enforcement.

Perhaps worst of all, the sensation has created an irrational distrust of professional clowns who help raise millions of dollars for sick and disabled children.

Lititz resident Amy Nolt, who for two decades has clowned as “Harmony” at Make-a-Wish Foundation events, said the “fad” has created issues for her and her clown colleagues.

“It makes the job of a professional or amateur clown who’s out there trying to do good things a lot harder,” Nolt said.

Like a lot of clowns these days, Nolt has curbed her activities.

“There are people who are already scared of clowns,” she said. “And then this kind of thing happens and makes it worse. We did participate in the Ephrata (Fair) parade, but Hanover was not allowing clowns in theirs this year.”

Seen often at Lititz events, including the Halloween parade and July Fourth celebrations, “Choo-Choo Jake” noted that he and other Shriners clowns approach their craft with caution these days.

Choo-Choo (real name Dennis Scott) is a “tramp” clown who you might recognize as the trick-bicycle-riding hobo in parades and other events. He said clowns are cognizant that many people instinctively fear clowns, and they recognize where to sidestep.

Often times those fears are exacerbated when a parent brings an already scared baby to eye-level with a clown. Teens sometimes push friends, who fear the make-up faced, red-nosed silent characters, into a clown “for fun,” Scott said.

The result can dangerous for professional clowns, who could be injured by aggressive kids or parents unaware of a disguised clown’s age, said the 69-year-old.

At a recent parade in Topton, Scott said clown crews were consigned to riding on a float and told to “stay as a group.”

“You don’t know the mental stability of people along the parade route,” Choo-Choo said.

While police in Lititz have not reported any incidents with creepy clowns, other departments, such as Ephrata have had sightings reported.

Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman’s office has acknowledged the potential for a problem with scary clown masks — Target last week stopped selling them — especially with Halloween approaching.

“I know a few of our departments have responded to clown calls,” said Brett Hambright, DA spokesman. “I am not aware of any charges being filed. I know in one instance, a couple young males were found with masks and told what they can and cannot legally do.”


Lititz Police Chief Kerry Nye suggested adults not “wear any type of mask during the Halloween season,” in light of the climate created by scary clowns.

“We take all calls seriously, and will investigate each call and see if any criminal activity occurred, and file the correct charges,” he said. “I also would hope that all parents go with their children trick or treating, and not allow them to be out on their own.”

Donegal School District last month urged parents to be aware that it had “received reports from several students that they have seen a person dressed as a clown in the woods near Donegal Intermediate School.”

Ephrata Police Chief William Harvey said his office had received reports of clown sightings in the Duke Street area in Ephrata Borough.

There was also an incident this month where his officers responded to a person wearing a “Vendetta” mask along Main Street, which unnerved afternoon pedestrians.

What is worrisome, Harvey said, is the fear of clowns, or coulrophobia, which is real.

“I have had off-line conversations with several citizens who have or believe that they possess this phobia,” he said. “They are more worried than most, not of any criminality, but of their internal fears.”

Choo-Choo noted the noticeable difference between a real clown, who’s typically doing good and raising money to help children, and a scary clown.

Traditionally, clowns wear makeup, unlike the scary mask-wearing versions with horrific gnarly teeth.

Hambright noted there is no crime for simply wearing a clown mask, or any other Halloween-type mask. However, if there is accompanying criminal conduct, such as trespassing, then police can file charges, when appropriate.

“We always evaluate the totality of the circumstances when considering charges. A mask in itself does not rise to the level of criminal behavior,” he said.

Still, even wearing a mask as a prank can create problems, Harvey said.

“It all boils down to common sense and civility,” Harvey said. “For those who have this fear, this is not a prank, but a personal emergency.”

The DA’s office “encourages residents to be vigilant and contact police whenever someone is in their neighborhood under suspicious circumstances,” whether the person is masked or not, Hambright said.

“Better to use precaution. If something seems suspicious, make the call,” he said. “Do not attempt to confront unknown individuals on your own.”

The recent spate of creepy clown scares in several states has compelled some municipalities to take extreme measures.

For instance, a Mississippi county has made it illegal to dress like a clown and has threatened a $150 fine against those caught in a clown costume.

The Kemper County Board of Supervisors voted to implement the ban, which expires the day after Halloween, making it illegal for anyone of any age to appear in public in a clown costume, clown mask or even clown makeup.

There is a law that bans wearing masks in Ephrata, but it has nothing to do with clowns. Ephrata Borough Council in 1989 enacted a law in response to the Ku Klux Klan.

The council passed an amendment to the 1972 “Peace and Good Order” ordinance in which it specifically prohibited wearing masks. The amendment followed a May 1989 incident when for the second time in two years, the Ku Klux Klan infamously arrived in Ephrata espousing hatred of blacks, Jews, Catholics and homosexuals.

The language in Article II entitled “Concealing Identity” vaguely states its purpose and provides a litany of exemptions.

The purpose is to “regulate the wearing of any hood, mask or other device which conceals the identity of the wearer” in public places, clearly targets the KKK.

The exemptions include anyone under the age of 16, those wearing a “traditional holiday costume in season,” and persons using masks in theatrical productions.

Others exempted from the law are workers “engaged in trades,” people wearing “a gas mask in drill exercises,” individuals wearing a mask because of any illness or allergy, and athletes wearing a mask or facial covering “worn for the purpose of ensuring the physical safety of the wearer.”

Perhaps the broadest exemption allows all people to “wear a mask, or wearing apparel in season, as personal protection against cold weather.”

Patrick Burns is social media editor and a staff writer for the Lititz Record Express. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at or at 721-4455.

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