2016-10-20 / Front Page

To Shriners, clowning is a passion

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Biddeford City Manager Jim Bennett, performing as Ginjo the Clown at the 2013 Moxie Fest in Lisbon Falls. Bennett, who has entertained children as Ginjo since 2000, said some stores in Biddeford have recently pulled scary clown masks from shelves in the wake of "creepy clown" sightings sweeping Maine and the nation. (Courtesy photo) Biddeford City Manager Jim Bennett, performing as Ginjo the Clown at the 2013 Moxie Fest in Lisbon Falls. Bennett, who has entertained children as Ginjo since 2000, said some stores in Biddeford have recently pulled scary clown masks from shelves in the wake of "creepy clown" sightings sweeping Maine and the nation. (Courtesy photo) BIDDEFORD — With Halloween approaching and “creepy clown” sightings on the rise, some local Shriners fear the phenomenon is giving them a bad name.

“This is creating hatred, and bullying our profession,” said Paul Niemczyk, of Old Orchard Beach. “How would you feel to hear someone say to shoot you because of what you do?”

In many ways, experts say, the recent spate of clown sightings is about more than smart-alecks seeking to unnerve hapless locals. Although legitimate clowns say it’s no laughing matter, the trend may highlight deep-rooted societal fears, in much the same way monster movies of the 1950s, with their radiation-spawned behemoths, played to atom age fears of the world ending in a nuclear holocaust.

Paul Niemczyk, of Old Orchard Beach, in a recent photo of him performing as "Happy," the persona he plays as part of the Kora Temple Shine clown corps. Niemczyk says he's concerned the recent trend of "creepy clown" sightings will put parents off from taking their children to the Shrine Circus and other clowning events. (Courtesy photo) Paul Niemczyk, of Old Orchard Beach, in a recent photo of him performing as "Happy," the persona he plays as part of the Kora Temple Shine clown corps. Niemczyk says he's concerned the recent trend of "creepy clown" sightings will put parents off from taking their children to the Shrine Circus and other clowning events. (Courtesy photo) The message: Something is wrong.

Creepy clown sightings are not new. A wave of clown sightings sprang up in the mid- 1980s, perhaps inspired by the Stephen King novel, “IT,” about a murderous entity that disguised itself as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in order to induce maximum fear into its victims. And, from Batman’s arch-nemesis The Joker, to hip hop duo Insane Clown Posse, scary clowns have always been a bit of a cottage industry, almost as ubiquitous as paintings of sad clowns on velvet.

But since late summer, a fresh wave of clown sightings has raced across the nation and around the globe, reaching a fever pitch.

On Monday, Biddeford City Manager Jim Bennett said some downtown stores have begun to pull scary clown masks off their shelves, out of deference to social media concern, where some posters have suggested the only good clown is a dead clown. The last thing anyone wants, he said, is for some young person to get shot because someone, viewing the clown stalking as an attempt to frighten, if not actually terrorize local residents, decided to put an end the game.

Bennett knows a thing or two about clowning around. Like Niemczyk, he clowns for the Kora Temple Shriners.

“The difference between what we do and what these other people are trying to do, is that Shrine clowns have two missions: to bring happiness and joy and laughter into people’s lives, and to raise money for more than 20 hospitals we have across North America that take came of children with either severe burns, or severe crippling diseases,” Bennett said. “People who are running around doing the creepy clown thing are about terrorizing and instilling fear, which is the polar opposite or what we do.”

Bennett and Niemczyk each attended the Shriner’s Northeast Clown Institute, or “clown college” to learn their craft. Both said making children laugh is serious business and they worry the recent trend might prejudice parents against taking their children to the Shrine circus, or other Shriner events.

“Shriner clowns work hard so kids can have fun,” Niemczyk said. “We do not lurk in shadows and scare people. We love your kids. The ones dressing up now are giving the good clowns a bad reputation.”

Niemczyk, who works at JJ’s Eatery Too in Old Orchard Beach, said his childhood dream was to be a clown, a passion he’s pursued for the past five years with the Shriners.

“I always wanted to run away and join the circus,” he said, noting that his clown persona, “Happy,” is all about inducing that very feeling. Still, he acknowledges that at any of the performances he does each year, it’s not uncommon for children to cry, rather than laugh, when he approaches.

“You learn pretty quickly in this business how to read a person’s body language, and if you have a child who is afraid, to back up and reassure to them that everything is OK,” Bennett said.

He’s faced that situation with the same reaction since be began clowning as “Ginjo” 16 years ago, sometimes volunteering his time to entertain children many as 200 hours per year.

“The object is to never make anyone uncomfortable, or to make anyone the butt of a joke if you don’t perceive that they are OK with that,” Bennett said. “The object is to make things light and fun, and to make everybody feel better.”

While being afraid of clowns has a name – coulrophobia – psychologists refer to the specific reaction caused by clowns as the “uncanny valley.” That’s the feeling one gets with faced with something that seems recognizable, but is a little off, with something indefinable not quite right. And it makes you feel weird.

The recent rash of creepy clown reports can be traced to an Aug. 29 report on WSPA, the CBS affiliate in Greenville, South Carolina.

The station made note of an Aug. 21 report to the Greenville County Sheriff’s Department about “clowns in the woods” behind the Fleetwood Manor Apartments complex. According to WSPA reporter Brianna Smith, who interviewed residents, “dozens of reports” were made of clowns trying to lure children into the woods behind the site with promises of cash and candy. Deputies investigated, following a wooded path to a house that area children claimed was where the clowns lived, but found nothing suspicious.

“It’s abandoned. Every time (deputies) have gone there they have not been able to find anything, clothing or anything else that would indicate someone lives there,” Greenville County Sheriff’s Office Master Deputy Ryan Flood told CBS News’ 48 Hours, which followed up the local reports with a story of its own on Aug. 31.

Still, by that time the property manager for the apartment had circulated a letter to all residents, warning them of “a clown or person dressed in clown clothing taking children or trying to lure children in the woods.” That letter was dated Aug. 24 and, within a week, clown sightings were popping up across Greenville County.

The WSPA story went viral almost instantly, even trending on Twitter the same day of the initial reports. Almost at once, copycat clowns began to appear up and down the eastern U.S., spreading from South Carolina and Georgia, to Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York.

For the most part, the reports were benign, and apparently linked to college campuses, were students took to standing on street corners in clown costumes, glaring menacingly and attracting attention, but otherwise creating no disturbance.

However, by late September, seven arrests were made in the Cincinnati area, where police charged students with “inciting panic” for inviting a “Clown Clan” to descend on their schools. Meanwhile, a boy in Fairborn, Ohio, was arrested for using a clown persona to make death threats on social media, while additional clown sightings prompted the precautionary lockdown of a middle school in Dayton Ohio, and the total shutdown Sept. 30 of a school district in Reading, Ohio.

It took a month, but the clowns finally came to Maine in earlier this month, with the first sighting prompting an Oct. 5 response from the Orono Police Department.

“We will not tolerate anyone harassing, threatening or trespassing on property,” the department said on its Facebook page. “If someone wants to do this to purposely scare people, we will handle them accordingly.”

So, far the closest sighting has been in Kennebunk, at least allegedly. On Oct. 4 the Twitter account @ClownReporting posted a photo of person in a clown mask, standing by a dirt path, holding a stick, claiming the shot was taken somewhere in town.

However, Kennebunk Police Chief Robert Mackenzie said the online post is all he has to go on.

“I saw it on Facebook myself, but we did not receive any reports at the police department, so I cannot verify we actually had a clown,” he said on Monday. “Other than that I have not been made aware of any complaints of clowns, as of yet anyways.”

Saco Police Chief Brad Paul said there have been no clown sightings in the city, but his department felt the need to address the issue, given that even the White House has commented on the issue.

“The Saco Police Department urges all citizens to make appropriate and educated decisions about their safety, and the safety of their families,” Paul wrote in a recent press release, in which he indicated some of the clown sightings, such as the one in Kennebunk, may be staged.

“It is also important that these matters be kept in context, and we should all be aware that the increased attention given many things that happen in our society are often inflamed by the widespread dependence on social media as a means of discussing issues,” Paul wrote. “Put simply, the anonymity of the internet and the ability of relatively few people to spread alarm that may not be based on factual evidence is widely known.”

Other clown sightings have been reported in Bath, Wells, Gorham and Standish, as well as in Orono, generally on or near college and high school campuses. Meanwhile, the trend has spread as far north as Houlton, where half a dozen residents reported seeing a person in a clown mask lurking outside their homes.

The first recorded depiction of something recognizable a clown was in Egypt, around 2000 BCE, according to Dr. Richard Talbot, senior lecturer in performance at the University of Salford, who commented on the recent clown craze for the BBC.

From that time to the present, clowns have often been used in media to highlight something or someone that’s different from the norm. In medieval times, and in the works of Shakespeare, the clown came in the form of the fool, or the jester.

“They would undermine a character, pick away at their status. Their role was to upend the social norm,” Talbot said. “They would highlight a truth, or a secret that someone was trying to hide.”

The first modern clown was Englishman Joseph Grimaldi, who, in the early 1800s, invented the white face and painted smile we now associate with clowns.

It’s the painted face, Talbot said, that can be unnerving, especially in young children, who are hardwired to recognize a human face, but can’t help but sense something “off” in the clown’s features.

“There’s a technical confusion,” he explained. “There’s a painted face which stays static but the facial muscles are still moving underneath, so our brains can’t quite make sense of it.”

That upending of reality is purposeful, Talbot said, and the subconscious discomfort caused by the clown face is what gives us permission to let our hair down, as it were, and bust out laughing.

“It’s about being out of control,” he said. “Clowns can trigger the very emotions we’re trying to contain, in order for us to conform to being understood as sensible and serious beings.”

But the triggers that give us permission to laugh, can also unlock other feelings, which Stephen King noted when recently asked about the latest spate of creepy clowning.

“When I wrote my novel ‘IT’, I set it in Bangor, because it’s a town with a tough and violent history,” he told the Bangor Daily News. “I chose Pennywise the Clown as the face which the monster originally shows the kiddies because kids love clowns, but they also fear them. Clowns with their white faces and red lips are so different and so grotesque compared to ‘normal’ people. Take a little kid to the circus and show him a clown, he’s more apt to scream with fear than laugh.”

In an interview with the New York Post, Kevin Bennett, senior psychology instructor at Pennsylvania State University’s Beaver campus, said he’s begun lecturing on recent clown sightings during his psychology course.

He traces the bad clown concept to King, and the 1988 movie “Killer Klowns from Outer Space,” which, he said, kicked off the current trend.

“(There) has been a sinister element to the clown personality and it has been exploited by horror movies and TV in the past three decades to the point where I’m not sure that millennials even connect clowns with innocence and fun at all,” he said.

Kevin Bennett also said recent news events – from the presidential race to racial tensions, to the war on terror, to the lingering fear of spark that might ignite a global conflagration, have people on edge. In many ways, he said, the appearance of the clowns is, in many cases, a signal in the Shakespearian tradition that something is not right, that the accepted order of things is in error. And even if some of the clowns don’t realize they are acting out social commentary, the advent of social media created a contagion that spreads that message like wildfire.

“People are anxious these days for a variety of reasons and spotting the boogeyman is more likely when you’re tired, stressed, or you have a reason to be looking for him,” Kevin Bennett said.

Whatever boogeyman there may be lurking at the edges of American politics, Niemczyk said he hopes the phenomenon will soon abate with the passing of the scariest of holidays, Halloween and, as some see it this year, Election Day.

“I’m just hoping this all dies out soon,” Niemczyk said. “I have friends who are professional clowns who are afraid to leave their houses. This has got to stop before someone gets hurt. I only hope that by the time the Shrine Circus rolls around next year, people will be back to appreciating clowns for the joy they bring to children.”

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