So-called “creepy clown” sightings have spread across more than 20 U.S. states and parts of Canada leading to arrests, school warnings and police investigations.
And for Miles Leahy who has been a professional clown for 32 years the news has been heartbreaking.
The 62-year-old from Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia who performs under the name Milo ‘T’ Clown got into the clowning business out of a love for children and to simply make people smile.
“[Being a clown] gives me such a warm feeling,” Leahy told Global News. “To be able to take people away from whatever is going on in their life, no matter how serious it is, and make them forget about it just for the half hour or hour that I am there and watch them smile– that is a gift to me.”
Leahy, who is the second vice-president of Clowns Canada (yes, Canada has a professional clown association), isn’t laughing about the spate of clown sightings and is worried they could be bad for professional clowns everywhere.
The reports first began when children in South Carolina claimed to have spotted clowns near an apartment complex.
The phenomenon, fuelled by social media, have occupied and caused major disruption in public even garnering a reponse from the White House.
“People have to remember these are not clowns,” Leahy said. “These are people dressed up in a clown costume who enjoy the power of being able to terrorize people.”
Earlier this week, schools in Ottawa and the Greater Toronto Area sent warning letters home to parents after police incidents involving teenagers dressed as clowns. On Tuesday, a 24-year-old was arrested in Clark’s Harbour, N.S., after witnesses reported that a clown had grabbed a boy’s clothing.
The creepy clown reports, sometimes referred to as “killer clowns,” fit into two categories – unsubstantiated sightings or instances of people dressed in clown attire approaching people.
Jason Seacat, an associate professor of psychology at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass., said while clown sightings are nothing new the recent incidents spread quickly due to a combination of sensational headlines and social media.
“When this first started happening there wasn’t a lot of accountability,” Seacat said. “People weren’t necessarily being caught for it. It was being publicized through social media.”
“Law enforcement just now is starting to catch up to speed with the [clown sightings],” he said.
Seacat said humans have a natural “love-hate” with things that fear evoking and attributed the epidemic of sightings to “social contagion” similar of mass hysteria.
“It’s like an infection that spreads through social networks,” he said. “If I go into the woods and come out and tell friends and family and put on social media I saw a sasquatch, inevitably reports of sasquatch in my area would go up.”
Other suggestions for the creepy clown trend include it’s simply a social media fad or a viral marketing stunt for a remake the Stephen King novel “It” which is currently shooting in Toronto. Producers for the film, which is scheduled to be released September 2017, have denied any association with the sightings.
Dustin Kidd, a sociologist and pop culture expert at Temple University, said the panic over clowns 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,” Kidd told the Associated Press. “If anything, it’s just distracting us from the real ordinary threats that we face in our everyday lives.”
Blood red noses, stark white faces, and a menacing grin.
The clown craze may have people suffering from caulrophobia, the clinical name for a fear of clowns, but Leahy says often times it’s because people can’t see behind the makeup.
“Clowns like Pennywise [from Stephen King’s It] are called a ‘white face clowns’ and there is no skin visible, so it’s hard to understand there is human being underneath that,” he said. “Not knowing whose behind it [can be scary].”
Seacat agreed saying “the mystery behind the face” is what scares people most.
“The mystery of who is behind the face, the faces are exaggerated, and it’s something that we carry with us that developed early in childhood,” he said.
Nova Scotia RCMP say a 24-year-old man wearing a clown mask and a T-shirt with a clown image was arrested on Tuesday after he allegedly tried to grab a young boy in Clarks Harbour.
The suspect, who was not identified, is facing a charge of breaching a court order.
Halifax police also confirmed this week they were investigating after a photo posted on social mediaappeared to show a clown standing outside a high school.
In August, teenagers were photographed in Gatineau, Que., wearing clown masks and allegedly chased kids from a park.
Gatineau police did not press charges as no crime was committed.
Two teens were arrested in Toronto on Wednesday after one of them dressed in a clown outfit and scared students at Pope Francis Catholic School in downtown Toronto. Toronto police released the two into the custody of their parents with a warning.
And French-language school boards in Ottawa and Toronto, sent letters home to parents indicating that security had been increased amid clown-related threats.
The Conseil Scolaire Viamonde, which manages nearly 50 schools in south-western Ontario, said in an email on Thursday the threats were made on social media.
“Despite the fact that no threats have been made against our school, nor to any school in the Conseil scolaire Viamonde, we prefer to err on the side of caution and increase security,” the email said.
WATCH: Fort Saskatchewan investigating clown complaints
In Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., RCMP met with a 15-year-old boy and his mother after he allegedly admitted to posing as a clown in a viral photo.
Police said the incident was an error in judgement on the youth’s behalf and he is “well aware of the outcome that his actions caused.”
And in Edmonton, two teens have been charged with making online threats against high schools.
In August, residents in the town of Greenville, S.C., reportedly spotted clowns in a wooded area and were alleged to be luring children into the woods with cash. The sightings were not substantiated by local authorities.
And in at least eight different incidents, residents in northeastern South Carolina told authorities they had spotted people dressed as menacing clowns. The reports were also not confirmed by police.
More than 500 students at Penn State University set out on Tuesday to hunt clowns after rumours spread online that one was on the loose.
Footage posted on social media showed students running together in the streets.
On Monday, several hundred University of Connecticut students carrying golf clubs and shovels gathered at a cemetery amid reports there were menacing clowns lurking in the area.
The Guardian reported Friday that people across the U.K. have reported a series of sightings of people dressed as clowns frightening children, with reports in Liverpool, Essex and other parts of England’s north east.
“These incidents follow on from a ‘craze’ originating in the US whereby people dressed as clowns have been photographed or filmed carrying outs various acts with the intention of scaring or causing fear,” police in Essex told the Guardian.
*With files from the Associated Press and the Canadian Press
© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.