Detroit area clown encounters play into fears nationwide

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Dynamo the Clown is used to making kids smile, not scream.

Detroiter Michael Lackey, who goes by Dynamo the Clown, has worked as a clown for 12 years without issues. But on his way to a gig amid the recent clown craze, he said a group a teens panicked and ran away.

But after a recent wave of anti-clown hysteria swept Metro Detroit and the nation he said a group of teenagers freaked out Sunday when they saw him.

“I was on my way to a gig, and I had my outfit on,” said 52-year-old Detroit resident Michael Lackey, who has worked as a clown for 12 years. “Some teenage girls saw me and they started to panic. They were screaming and pointing at me, running away, completely terrified.

“I sometimes have had little kids get scared of me, but what’s happening now is something new.”

An unusual clown sighting in Clinton Township on Sunday spooked 17-year-old Chris Henckel, who posted a photo on Twitter of a clown standing in a car wash bay at night, slowly waving at Henckel’s camera. “He tried to follow our car,” Henckel wrote. “This is getting insane.”

Even if the sightings and reports — fueled by social media — are hoaxes, authorities are forced to take reports of creepy clowns seriously as a potential threat to public safety, particularly at schools, where principals have conducted lockdowns and canceled classes.

Chris Henckel, 17, tweeted a video of a strange clown waving to him from a car wash on Sunday.

Clown incidents have been reported this week at schools around the United States, including Penn State University, where police said more than 500 students showed up early Tuesday to hunt for clowns. The New Haven, Connecticut, school district is banning clown costumes and any “symbols of terror” during this year’s Halloween season as authorities investigate the authenticity of clown-related social media posts.

Metro Detroit is not being left out of the creepy clown craze, with several reports of incidents this week.

On Tuesday night, an armed man in a clown mask robbed a Brownstown Township Walgreens outlet. About an hour later, a man in a clown mask robbed a BP gas station and Dominos Pizza store in Ann Arbor. Police believe the incidents were related.

Also Tuesday, Sterling Heights police investigated reports that people dressed up as clowns attacked a 7-year-old boy and scared two women. The child reported someone wearing a clown mask with “red hair, a red nose and red facial features” approached him near his home in the 43000 block of Normandy at about 6:50 p.m., police Lt. James Belmonte said.

Belmonte said another incident involving a clown was reported near Lowell and Boulder, when three baseball-bat wielding adult males in “scary clown masks ... ran up on two women who were walking in the area,” he said. The women told police the clowns “hit the bat against a nearby fence then stopped and ran away,” he said.

A clown-masked robber hit a Walgreens in Brownstown Township on Tuesday night. Clown encounters have been reported across the nation.

An Instagram account called ClownsofDearborn has been leaving threatening messages in users’ inboxes, Dearborn police said.

The coulrophobia — fear of clowns — has become so pronounced, Troy Police on Tuesday issued a warning: Clowns should tread lightly in their oversized shoes.

“If you decide to dress up as a clown and go out in public, you should do so with great care and consideration as those you are targeting may feel the need to defend themselves,” police wrote on their Facebook page.

Sgt. Meghan Lehman said the post was meant as a warning for clowns to avoid breaking the law — and to watch their backs.

“We had a clown who went to Athens High School last Friday, and it caused quite the stir,” she said. “Kids were frightened, and reported it to the school. Parents were informed, and advised to walk with their kids to and from school.”

Lehman said the person dressed as a clown was a 19-year-old and he was on school property without permission. He wasn’t charged.

Sociologists say the panic over clowns, which may seem silly from a distance, is a new twist on a phenomenon as old as witch hunts.

“There is a sense that there is some evil force out there that we have to organize together to attack,” said Dustin Kidd, a sociologist and pop culture expert at Temple University. “If anything, it’s just distracting us from the real ordinary threats that we face in our everyday lives.”

Some people are even trying to use the heightened interest in clown incidents to their advantage. Police in Reading, Ohio, outside Cincinnati, say an 18-year-old woman lied about being attacked by a knife-wielding clown as an excuse for being late for work. Investigators found inconsistencies in Alexsandra Conley’s story and charged her with making a false alarm, a misdemeanor.

Rich Hanley, a journalism professor and social media expert at Quinnipiac University, which also had a clown scare this week, said the fear is easily spread on social media.

Posts on Twitter, Instagram and other sites, he said, often contain videos, images and statements that lack any context, factual filters or important details that would be in an actual news report. In a closed social situation, such as a school or university campus, that can easily lead to a less than rational response, he said.

Troy’s Lehman said the recent fear of clowns could result in violence.

“Probably most of the people doing this are just kids trying to have some fun, but there are others doing criminal activity wearing clown outfits,” she said. “The safety concern is for the people dressing up as clowns; people are going to be quick to defend themselves. We had one response on our Facebook page from a guy who said he had a CPL, and if he sees one he’ll shoot him. We don’t want that.”

University of Detroit-Mercy marketing professor Michael Bernacchi said clowns are in desperate need of some positive publicity.

“Now that clowns are being demonized, I think they should hire a public relations firm to give their profession an image makeover,” he said.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN

Staff writers Candice Williams and James David Dickson and Associated Press contributed.