Scary clowns, Halloween may not be a good mix this year

Contact Reporterjoreyes@dailypress.com

Trick-or-treaters looking to break out red rubber noses, oversized shoes and threatening clown accessories to cause a Halloween scare might want to reconsider those plans.

With people around the country on edge from widely publicized "creepy clown" scares, police advise Halloween observers to lay off clown-related pranks. Their concerns stem from pranks, memes, hoaxes and stories of creepy clowns terrorizing people that have circulated throughout the country since early August — to include incidents on the Peninsula.

The whole scare started in Greenville County, S.C., when people's reports of creepy clowns led deputies to search the woods around an apartment complex, according to Ben Guarino of the Washington Post.

Since then, stories of clowns have stretched to virtually every corner of the country.

Hampton police said dressing as a clown for Halloween is perfectly fine, "as long as you act in the fun spirit of the holiday." But anyone dressed as a clown and causing a threat could face charges, said Titus Sapp, a Hampton police officer and the team leader of the city's school resource officers.

Sapp said he "most definitely" advises people against donning scary clown costumes this year.

He also warned that state law prohibits people older than 16 from wearing masks or other covers to conceal their identities. There are exceptions for people who wear masks for work, performance arts, medical or safety purposes and "traditional holiday costumes," such as on Halloween.

Jason Price, a spokesman for the Hampton Police Division, said anyone in a clown costume "trying to incite fear in the public is a different story." He emphasized that it varies by situation, but Halloween is not an alibi for any crime and added that wearing a mask for reasons not approved in the state law is a Class 6 felony.

Impacting business

Karen and Ken Grizzard expected their inventory of scary clown masks to stay on the shelves of their Newport News costume shop this Halloween season as news spread of creepy, threatening clowns.

They were wrong.

The masks have been a boon for business. On Oct. 20, they had only one scary clown mask left in stock at their store, Party Station.

"We just hope they don't buy them and do something silly," Karen Grizzard said. "We hope they don't wear them out on the street."

Target has stopped selling clown masks in its 1,799 stores nationwide and has pulled the masks from its website, according to a report by Amy B. Wang of the Los Angeles Times. "Given the current environment, we have made the decision to remove a variety of clown masks from our assortment, both in stores and online," a Target spokesman said in the Times story.

Regular clown costumes for kids and adults and accessories remain available on the Target website.

Clown scare hits home

On the Peninsula, the clown scare hit home in recent weeks. On Sept. 30, Newport News and Hampton police beefed up their presence at schools due to social media accounts of people posing as clowns and making threats against some schools.

Police from the two agencies said there was no evidence that the threats were credible, but they decided to place more officers in the schools as a precaution. Police did not report any incidents related to clowns happening in any schools that day.

On Oct. 2, however, a 13-year-old girl was arrested after police said she asked one of the "clowns" on social media to kill one of her teachers at Davis Middle School in Hampton. The teenager was charged with threatening to kill by electronic means.

Police spokesman Jason Price said the teenager used her personal account and made specific threats, leading police to charge and arrest her. He said the people running the clown alias accounts might also face charges of threatening to kill by electronic means. However, they have yet to be identified.

Citing confidentiality laws, the Department of Juvenile Justice did not say whether the teenager was released or was still in custody. Price said Hampton police are still investigating the clown accounts on social media with the FBI.

In the wake of the scare and arrest, Sapp said resource officers in Hampton schools have provided additional guidance.

"Students have come to us with questions and concerns," Sapp said. "We've advised them to be aware of the way they carry themselves" and told them to report anything that troubles them. He said he knows some kids just want to play around, but resource officers have advised potential Halloween pranksters that it's not a good idea to try to cause scares, either online or while they're out on Halloween.

Resource officers have also advised students to be aware of their social media presence because their actions online can affect them in real life.

"It's the way of the world now," Sapp said. "Social media is used to stir a situation up, so we have to be able to help calm them down."

Sad day for clowning

Valerie Tutson, who has worked as a clown named Daisy since 2000, said the recent clown scares are saddening and possibly indicate the end of clowning. She said clowning's popularity has declined because of portrayals of creepy clowns and the use of clowns in Howl-O-Scream and other attractions. The latest trend of clown scares has just continued the decline, she said.

Tutson's business still picks up around Halloween every year, but people aren't hiring her as a clown. Her business, A Mile of Smiles, does far more face-painting and balloon-twisting than clown performances. Tutson will put on light makeup and place a feather in her hair when she works an event, but she rarely ever gets into full costume anymore.

Her goal, she said, is to make kids laugh and their parents smile. "Clowning comes from the heart," she said.

She also acknowledged that coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns, is a legitimate fear for some people, but more and more people have just grown nervous around clowns because of trends such as the recent clown scares.

"It's a sad day in America when clowns cannot be clowns," she said.

Karen and Ken Grizzard believe the clown scare is indicative of people as a whole being more on edge. "It's bigger than Halloween," Karen Grizzard said.

"People get nervous around anyone with their face covered … everybody is more nervous in general," Ken Grizzard said.

The Grizzards said they didn't change their inventory as a result of the clown scare because they operate year-round and usually have the clown masks in stock. Over the 23 years they've operated their store, the couple has seen fads affect people's nerves, especially around Halloween. But they said they've never seen a trend affect people as much as clowns have this year.

"That's the sad thing — clowns are supposed to be happy," Karen Grizzard said.

Staff writers Michele Canty and Amanda Williams contributed to this report. Reyes can be reached by phone at 757-247-4692.

Halloween tips from Hampton police

•Stay in a group

•Stay in a familiar area.

••Only visit houses with a porch light on.

•Be polite to people giving out candy.

•Lay off pranks.

•Check candy before eating it.

•Don't trick-or-treat if you're over 13.

••Observe the hours for trick-or-treating in your locality.

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