IN RECENT weeks, the world has been swept up in killer clown hysteria. Georgia, Alabama, Maryland, Florida and New Jersey, ghoulish clowns have been sighted across America, some merely loitering menacingly, others making threats, committing robberies and assaults. That some of these stories were later discovered to be hoaxes was unimportant, as the clowns were now rooted in our cultural consciousness. Soon, Good Morning America was reporting on frenzied clown hunts on college campuses, and the panic even made it to the White House press briefing. Now, the clowns have seemingly spread to the UK, making this a global epidemic.

Most timelines have the phenomenon beginning on August 29, in Greenville County, South Carolina, with local news reports of men dressed as clowns lurking outside an apartment complex, trying to lure children out to the nearby woods. But did this hysteria truly start in the USA? Or is it all just a new iteration of an old legend, one which has its roots right here in Scotland?

When I was a child, back in the early 1990s, evil clowns loomed large in my mind. I had seen the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s It at a much younger age than I probably should have and one of my earliest memories is trick-or-treating at age five as Pennywise, pairing my clown costume with a set of vampire fangs and snarling at bemused elderly candy-givers. I also have memories from that time of evil clowns that felt more real. Local kids in my native Rutherglen would tell each other stories of wicked clowns driving around the area in a blue transit van, hunting for children. What happened to the children those clowns caught varied with the telling: They were killed, they were eaten, their faces were scarred so they too would become clowns, or they simply disappeared forever. I would talk to kids who knew of someone who vanished, or who earlier that day had been chased down the road by a blue van. This was just when I was old enough to be learning about “stranger danger” and so the concept of being snatched away by a stranger and that stranger being a clown, giggling maniacally as he hauled me screaming into a van, melded disturbingly in my mind.

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I have specific memories of all this culminating in me tagging along with my cousin and his friends – all a couple of years older than me – on one long summer day as we wandered out through the town, all of us carrying sticks or bricks as makeshift weapons and hunting for these clowns. We never found any, of course, and I remember being relieved but also a little disappointed. I had been terrified at the thought of ever seeing a blue van hurtling down the road towards me, a clown’s leering face behind the wheel, and yet another part of me was curious about seeing these monsters for myself.

Perhaps it was that same curiosity which prompted me to read more into the blue van clowns as an adult, attempting to unpack the truth behind it. As it turns out, this was something more widespread than playground chatter at my school. In the early 1990s, children all around Glasgow, Lanarkshire and the surrounding areas were gripped with clown terror. I have talked to people who were kids in that time who remember hearing the same stories I did. I have talked to people who were teachers at that time, who recall having to arrange emergency school assemblies to attempt to defuse growing panic among pupils under their care. There are slight variations – some insist the clowns’ van was white, not blue – but the basic elements of the narrative remain consistent. On Friday November 8, 1991, the Glasgow Guardian ran with a front page that declared, KILL KLOWN SCARE. Even now, there are blogs, Buzzfeed articles and Facebook pages dedicated to the blue van clowns.

BUT was there any truth to the legend? Where did it come from? Digging a little deeper into the origins of the clowns, it would seem that some tellings of the tale interpreted them as escaped patients from Carstairs hospital, but there are no records I can find of dangerous escapees or clown/van related violent crimes in Glasgow in the time period. The Glasgow Guardian in 1991 blamed the influence of Killer Klowns from Outer Space and the aforementioned It on vivid young imaginations. A 2010 blog from writer Alan Cook suggests the blue van clowns could be an embellishment of an earlier local legend of a bogeyman called “Tommy the Gypsy,” who would supposedly slice children’s faces with a razor blade while tickling them. But, thus far at least, I have not found any concrete basis in fact for the legend.

If anything, the current clown craze is grounded in more evidence, given that we live in an age where everything is recorded and everyone wants to be a performer. Smartphone cameras and omnipresent social media make secrets harder to keep and hoaxes easier to spread. But the parallels between then and now are still uncanny, from schools issuing warnings to children to mobs of anti-clown vigilantes springing into action. I even read someone tweeting about seeing clowns in a blue van in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Is it all just elaborate performance art that got out of hand, a big fake? Are the sightings merely tall tales, or is something more complex at work?

Perhaps the answer lies in another historical hysteria: the London Monster, who reportedly stalked the streets of London from 1788 to well into the 1790s, following women at night and stabbing them in the buttocks. The newspapers made a sensation out of the story, with more than 50 victims coming forward, and one man eventually convicted of the crime in 1790. Only, the crimes continued once he was imprisoned, and evidence suggested he could not have possibly committed many of the assaults. In fact, it was discovered that many of the victims had stabbed themselves, and some historians have even speculated there was no London Monster, that he was merely a disjointed series of second-hand reports and rumours that took on a life of their own. But that did not make the terror he provoked any less genuine.

Is that what has happened with our current worldwide clown epidemic? Did we take those initial whisperings from Carolina and, through a combination of exaggeration, outright fabrication, and some subconscious desire, will the clowns into existence? Perhaps the pranksters and criminals dressing up like clowns and the anonymous online trolls with clown usernames were invoked by us like demons, filling a void to make tangible the cloud of uneasiness and ill-feeling that the very real horrors of this year have left us dealing with.

And Glasgow’s clowns in the blue van? They were never proven to be anything more than a fairy tale. Or maybe they were just never caught. Either way, they have become enshrined in the memories of “growing up Glaswegian” in the 1990s for many, their legend now recycled for a new generation. My newest comic book, Sink, is set in Glasgow, a collection of twisted crime yarns with Gothic horror undertones. In developing the series, searching for a monster at the story’s core that would fittingly represent the dark heart of Glasgow’s nightmare underbelly, nothing seemed more appropriate than the blue van clowns that haunted my childhood. Overlooked, perhaps, but certainly not forgotten.

John Lees is a comic book writer whose credits include, And Then Emily Was Gone, Oxymoron: The Loveliest Nightmare, Quilte and The Standard. His story in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Universe is released in comic shops in January. To read the first issue of Sink, and learn more about the history of the blue van clowns, subscribe to the official newsletter at sink.comixtribe.com.


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