MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This next story falls under the category of funny-not-funny. If there are school-age children at your house, you've probably gotten wind of stories involving creepy clowns. In some two dozen states, police have reported calls claiming that creepy clowns were actually lurking in public places, causing school lockdowns in some cases. Now, most of these reports have since been debunked as hoaxes, but a few arrests have been made. And as NPR's Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi reports, the creepy clown scare is anything but amusing for those in the funny business.
ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: When you ask Mr. Rainbow of Durham, N.C. how he became a professional clown, he'll blame it on his wife.
DAVID BARTLETT: It's my wife's fault, yes. She signed me up for a class in balloon sculpting that I didn't want to go to. And because we couldn't get our money back, I went to the class.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: David Bartlett, as he's known off the clock, quickly found he had a knack for clowning around, so he quit his job as a schoolteacher to go full-time. Every week, he performs at hospitals, office parties, colleges. And what has working almost 3,000 birthday parties taught him?
BARTLETT: It doesn't matter what you do. It doesn't matter what you have in your hands. The art of the clown is to take whatever you do and make people laugh.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Bartlett says he's used to dealing with coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns. It's part of the job. And he isn't too worried about the latest round of scary clown sightings.
BARTLETT: It's not affecting my business model because I'm a hometown clown in an area where they've known me for many years.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But many working clowns are taking the scare a little more seriously.
MIKE WESLEY: I haven't done a show since this began.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Mike Wesley is a retired mailman and part-time clown known as Mr. Funny Bunny in central Ohio.
WESLEY: People started calling me up and saying they've had second thoughts, and what else can I do?
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: He says that over his three decades in the industry, he's watched similar panics come and go every few years.
WESLEY: And they are timed to things that involve clowns in the news.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Like the case of John Wayne Gacy in the late 1970s, the serial killer who painted prison portraits of himself dressed as a clown. Or movies like "IT," based on Stephen King's novel about an evil clown named Pennywise.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT")
TIM CURRY: (As Pennywise) I am your worst dream come true. I'm everything you ever were afraid of.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Mike Wesley says that past frenzies would typically blow over in a couple weeks, but that social media has spawned copycats around the country. And that's made things difficult for people who clown to keep the lights on.
LORI HURLEY: I am Half-Pint, my husband is Oscar, and my children are Teaspoon, Little Squirt and Thumper.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Lori Hurley and her family are professional clowns in St. Paul, Minn.
HURLEY: Because I'm a clown, I can see the bright side and the humor in anything. But there is a real problem when people can't distinguish the difference between the real clowns and people who dress up as clowns with the intent to scare.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: She says business is down around 20 percent since the sightings started.
HURLEY: And when we have people call and cancel bookings, it hurts my family. When I'm driving down the road as a clown and people are looking at me like I'm that bad, evil, scary clown and they've just heard on the radio how they should take matters into their own hands, suddenly my safety is jeopardized, as is my children.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Hurley recently came across a photo circulating on social media of a fake clown hunting permit which reads, also valid for al-Qaida, Taliban and Boko Haram.
HURLEY: When you start putting clowns up there with terrorists, then I think people need to take a step back and ask themselves, yeah, maybe it was funny in thought, but is it really funny? Because underneath the makeup - for the real clowns - are real people with real families, with real jobs.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Mr. Rainbow, aka David Bartlett, on the other hand, says this, too, shall pass. And his advice to fellow working clowns?
BARTLETT: Make them laugh. Go back to the basics of what clowning is, and they will know who you are.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Well, you heard the clown. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News.
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