When it comes to safety, Diane Knight doesn’t clown around.
Knight is careful to check who is hiring Cloe the Clown and the locations where her clown persona is performing.
The Aurora woman said recent reports of “creepy clowns” popping up in the area, some of whom have threatened students on social media, are not funny, nor are the posts by people who say they plan to hurt any clown they come across in public.
For professionals like Knight, the threats of reprisals are scary, especially for people who see their job as bringing smiles to others by twisting balloons into animals, telling stories, painting whimsical faces and performing magic tricks.
“I love what I do; I don’t want to stop,” she said. “They say there’s a shortage of clowns. I hope this doesn’t scare people away.”
Knight, who travels extensively throughout the Naperville, Fox Valley and Chicago areas, said she had one recent cancellation for an Oswego event. She’s not sure if it was related to the social media hoax involving a clown that was directed at Thompson and Traughber junior high schools in Oswego.
Knight, who has been clowning for three decades, said the creepy clown phenomenon is just one of many hits her profession has taken over the years.
In the late 1970s, serial killer John Wayne Gacy hurt the business when it was learned he dressed as a clown for fundraisers. Nicknamed the Killer Clown, it’s believed Gacy murdered at least 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978 in Cook County.
She also cites Stephen King’s 1986 novel, “It,” and the television miniseries based on it, for increasing people’s fears. The central character is a shape-shifting creature that appears as a clown.
“That movie was scary,” she said. “It made a lot of adults frightened of clowns.”
Since then, Knight has softened the look of her clown to appear less intimidating.
“I haven’t done white face in years,” she said. “My clown is more like a human being.”
The white-face look also is gone for Lily the Clown, who said the potentially violent overreaction to clowns is no laughing matter.
“I am really concerned. I’m a bit afraid to be out in public in clown costume,” said Debbie George, the human side of Lily. “It is kind of scary. You just don’t know how people are going to react.”
The Montgomery woman said she’s spoken with other members of her troupe, Merry Hearts Clowns. They have discussed whether it might be better to wait to apply makeup until they arrive at an appearance, she said.
Several police agencies have urged people to call 911 if they see someone dressed as a clown and behaving suspiciously.
“The DuPage County sheriff’s office is aware of the recent ‘clown sightings’ occurring locally in our parks, on the paths and trails, and even on our roadways,” the agency noted in a community alert.
George said even that is frightening.
“I don’t want to get stopped by police driving up to a library or church,” she said. “This is something we’ve never really dealt with before.”
Decisions will be made this week about the “The Buddy Show,” the Merry Hearts’ Friday event at New Life Church in Yorkville, where the clown ministry is based, George said.
“Our goal is for a fun and safe place to go for families,” she said. “We’re very, very, very careful when we encounter kids and adults who are afraid of clowns.”
George suggested the 2016 “creepy clown” wave might be related to the remake of “It.”
Police in 20 states started recording incidents shortly after the first images of Pennywise, the fictional killer clown from “It,” were published this summer. The movie is set for release in September 2017.
The hubbub over clowns also has Ronald McDonald keeping a low profile.
McDonald’s Corp. said Tuesday that it is being “thoughtful in respect to Ronald McDonald’s participation in community events” as a result of the “current climate around clown sightings in communities.”
Edward Hospital in Naperville has a Ronald McDonald Family Room.
John “Jay-Jay the Clown” Joseph said he isn’t surprised by this year’s craze.
“Every year about this time we get the same reaction,” Joseph said.
Despite the hysteria, the Arlington Heights resident said he’s seeing a lot of positive publicity.
“A lot more people (have come) up to me and asked to have their picture taken with me, and I have booked more parties,” he said.
As Halloween approaches, Joseph said he prefers to appear less as a clown.
“When you dress as a clown, you stand out. At Halloween, everybody’s a clown. We don’t stand out; we blend in,” said the 1988 Midwest Clown Association Hall of Fame inductee and 2011 winner of a Midwest Clown Association lifetime achievement award. Among his many titles, Joseph also serves as third vice president of the International Shrine Clown Association and he’s been past president of the Midwest Clown Association.
While some people truly are coulrophobic, Joseph said he’s found it’s trendy for teenage girls to feign fear.
“They’ll hang together in the back of the room and say, ‘I’m afraid of clowns.’ When their peers are gone, they’ll come up and ask for balloons or to have their faces painted,” he said.