National clown hysteria troubles local performers

“I’ve had to change some things,” said Renate McIntosh, who portrays Snippy Doodles. “I used to stop by the Food Lion on my way home in costume to get groceries and I would always joke with kids that I was shopping for chocolate pizza, then I’d stop to make them a quick balloon animal. I’m not doing that anymore because of the stories I’m hearing.” (Submitted photo)

“I’ve had to change some things,” said Renate McIntosh, who portrays Snippy Doodles. “I used to stop by the Food Lion on my way home in costume to get groceries and I would always joke with kids that I was shopping for chocolate pizza, then I’d stop to make them a quick balloon animal. I’m not doing that anymore because of the stories I’m hearing.” (Submitted photos)

DOVER — Snippy Doodles has gone from clowning around with children while on a quick grocery run to worrying about her safety when she spots a crowd of young people in a nearby parking lot.

“I’ve had to change some things,” said Renate McIntosh, who portrays Snippy Doodles. “I used to stop by the Food Lion on my way home in costume to get groceries and I would always joke with kids that I was shopping for chocolate pizza, then I’d stop to make them a quick balloon animal.

“I’m not doing that anymore because of the stories I’m hearing.”

Those stories include reports of law enforcement officials responding to threatening or violent clown-related calls nationwide for the past few weeks. On several occasions the incidents have resulted in school lockdowns and arrests, including one recently in the Smyrna School District.

While many calls have been deemed pranks and hoaxes, the resulting hysteria has led officials to express concern about public safety. Fueling those worries are threats posted on social media: Trending hashtags include #clownhunt and #clownPurge.

But what if you happen to be a real clown just minding your own business?

That question came home to local Delaware clowns when two Smyrna High School students were arrested on Oct. 5 in connection with a bomb threat and threats of clowns committing violence against fellow students.

In light of the recent violent clown hysteria, police advised Steve Dunner of Wilmington, who portrays Pop Pop the Magic Clown, not to travel in costume.

In light of the recent violent clown hysteria, police advised Steve Dunner of Wilmington, who portrays Pop Pop the Magic Clown, not to travel in costume.

Smyrna Mayor Joanne Masten condemned the students’ actions but also expressed concern over what implications they may have on local performers.

“I have a very good friend who’s a clown — Snippy Doodles here in Smyrna,” said Ms. Masten, when asked about the arrests. “She does a wonderful job giving back to the community, but now she is afraid someone is going to attack her for being dressed as a clown.”

Ms. McIntosh, of Smyrna, has been a clown for about 20 years and is the Delaware state director of the Mid-Atlantic Clown Association. She performs locally at kids’ parties and events and makes appearances at The Green Turtle in Dover every Tuesday night.

The recent spate of clown threats has her looking over her shoulder when she’s in costume.

“We recently had the Delaware Library Showcase and Expo at the Smyrna Opera House,” said Ms. McIntosh. “It’s right next to John Bassett Moore Intermediate School and they almost share a parking lot. The school was letting out at the same time that I was in the parking lot packing up my display and I was concerned about what the kids might be thinking.”

Ms. McIntosh, once very comfortable in her clown outfit, is also second guessing how often she should be seen in costume outside the venue where she is entertaining.

While she is nervous for her safety, her real concern is for children, especially during Halloween.

“I’m worried that a child might get hurt wearing a clown mask by someone who isn’t thinking clearly,” she said.

A close call

The negative attention toward clowns almost took a tragic turn two weeks ago for Pop Pop the Magic Clown, portrayed by Steve Dunner of Wilmington.

Mr. Dunner, still in costume, was returning home after a performance, driving his car that had “Pop Pop the Magic Clown” decals on it. As he drove on I-95, he noticed a car full of high school-aged kids laughing and pointing at him in the next lane.

“They started trying to drive me off the road,” he said. “They crossed over into my lane and I actually had to move several times to avoid them. I don’t think they meant to cause an accident, but there’s no question that they were threatening me.”

In light of the recent violent clown hysteria, police advised him not to travel in costume. He aims to take that advice from now on.

Getting his start in clowning while raising his own two daughters, it wasn’t until his granddaughter, Destiny, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer that he became more involved. He decided to take the opportunity to dress in costume to visit her and other children in the hospital.

After her death, he became a volunteer at the Nemours Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington and a member “Caring Clowns.” That organization provides clowns for area hospitals. Now retired, he still clowns part-time with regular appearances at Dairy Queens in Bear, Middletown and Newark and at other events.

Although Mr. Dunner hasn’t seen an appreciable decline in his business yet, he worries about colleagues who clown on a full-time basis.

“It’s a shame because there are some people who make a living out of this, and my guess is that their business is going to take a hit,” he said.

Same old story

Mr. Dunner does note the “clown phobia” is nothing new; he’s often seen similar scares come in waves. He believes the genesis of clown hysteria in pop culture began with the film “Killer Klowns from Outer Space,” released in 1988.

“Since that movie came out, the clown phobia pops up every now and then,” he said. “Things like that put a very bad name on the clown business, and it’s sad.”

He speculated the current rash of clown hysteria may have been exacerbated by the widespread use of social media to stoke fear.

He remains hopeful the current scare will peak around Halloween and taper off thereafter — but if this turns out not to be the case, he said he’ll just have to be more cautious.

“I’ll have to take some extra precautions,” he said. “When I come home to my condominium, which has a large parking lot, I scan it with my flashlight just to make sure no one is waiting for me, and I also check the Dairy Queen lot before I come out to load my car after a performance. I need to make sure no one will sneak up on me. I used to not worry about that.”

He’s also seen an up-tick in prank calls. Lately, he has been receiving lewd and threatening phone calls in the middle of the night from people he guesses to be of college age. Since they will often call several times in a row he’ll often leave the phone off the hook after the first call.

There’s still hope, though, he said, because some calls have been from kids with an honest sense of curiosity.

“It has been really interesting because I have gotten a couple kids, probably about junior high school age, that just called because they wanted to understand what was happening with clowns,” he said.

“I didn’t expect it, but they were very polite and they wanted to know if I was a good clown or a bad one. When I’ve gotten these calls I’ve taken the time to explain what a real clown is and how they can bring joy and laughter to the community.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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