PITTSBURGH (AP) — Police are encouraging caution amid a rash of public complaints and social media reports in a number of states of people dressed like clowns and acting suspiciously, even if they think many are knucklehead pranksters or simply bogus.
Real clowns are just plain miffed.
Authorities in Greenville, South Carolina, were among the first to report a clown-related incident in recent weeks. Late last month, some children reported clowns trying to lure them into the woods with money. Sheriff's deputies found no evidence, however, not even a prankster in a clown suit.
But for whatever reason, since then, people in Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina and now, Pennsylvania, have reported scary or suspicious encounters with people dressed like clowns.
"When people report these things it should be 'someone dressed like a clown,' because a real clown would never dress or do anything to scare anyone," said Tricia Manuel, 55, who runs Mooseburger Clown Arts Camp in Buffalo, Minnesota. The camp, named for her alter ego, Pricilla Mooseburger, trains about 100 clowns each year.
She said she has been following the reports closely because they are hurting business.
"In South Carolina, two of the clowns were afraid to go out and perform, and they're two of my customers," said Manuel, whose two children are also clowns. "If they don't perform, they don't need supplies."
Some of the reported sightings have been hoaxes, like the four young children who told police they made up stories about spotting clowns in unusual places in and around Annapolis, Maryland, or the 24-year-old man whom police in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, charged with falsely reporting that a clown knocked on his window.
Other related cases weren't so harmless and have resulted in criminal charges.
The sheriff in Escambia County, Alabama, last week arrested a 22-year-old woman and two juveniles after Flomaton High School was locked down and searched when students were threatened on "Flomo Klown" and "Shoota Cllown" social media accounts. And in Athens, Georgia, an 11-year-old girl was arrested for taking a knife to school on Friday because she was frightened by social media reports and other rumors that clowns were preparing to attack children.
The Pennsylvania reports and law-enforcement response have, so far, been more low key. Police want to encourage people to report suspicious behavior without aggravating matters.
Albert Walker, the police chief in northeastern Pennsylvania's Hanover Township, has stepped up patrols along the Sans Souci Parkway after Facebook posts about a clown in nearby woods.
But the chief chose his words carefully in describing his department's connection to any other clown sightings.
"Peripherally we're connected to it, but not directly," Walker said. "It was a social media post that identified the possibility of an alleged sighting of an individual dressed as a clown along one of our main highways."
Pottsville Police Chief Richard Wojciechowsky said there appeared to be more to a clown-related incident reported Monday evening in his borough, about 90 miles northwest of Philadelphia — but still no cause for alarm.
"Two knuckleheads with clown-like clothes on" hopped out of a pickup truck and yelled at a group of young children and teenagers, the chief said.
"It wasn't a physical threat or a violent act. At best, (it's) a misguided juvenile prank," the chief said. "Some of the older kids weren't even frightened."
The Pennsylvania State Police are investigating recent unspecified clown sightings in the towns of Huntingdon and Ebensburg, where a woman said a clown peeped through her window. Trooper Adam Reed said citizens should "not confront the individual but rather gather information and report it to your local police."
Manuel said the public's perception of clowns has been going downhill since Stephen King's 1986 novel about a child-killing clown, "It," became a TV miniseries four years later. But the latest incidents take the cake.
"We are used to 'Killer Klowns from Outer Space' and Krusty the Clown, but this has taken it to another level," Manuel said. "It's another thing to have people act out these sick fantasies. This is like, 'Are you kidding me?'"