BANGOR, Maine — Jappo blames the bad clowns.
They are making him sad. They are the reason that for the first time in Mike Samiya’s 31 years as Jappo the clown — a name he selected as a play on his Asian ancestry — he avoids dressing in character before driving to a gig.
The numerous recent alleged or actual sightings of people dressed as clowns threatening violence have the 75-year-old Veazie resident and other professional or volunteer entertainers concerned that people who see them in costume will get the wrong idea.
“It gives us Shriner clowns a bad name, you know. It’s terrible,” Samiya, a member of the Bangor-area Anah Shrine clowns, said of the recent scares. “We have been trying to avoid putting on makeup because of that. My company had a thing going on at Sam’s Club the weekend before last, and they wanted me to perform. I told them, ‘I want to go there, but I don’t want to put makeup on.’”
“It’s a shame,” said Chris “Flip” Florey, a 45-year-old Brewer man who has been a part-time clown since 1995. “If these people were doing the same thing not dressed as a clown, it would just be a crime. The fact that they are dressing up this way doesn’t help.”
An international phenomenon
The number of national reported clown sightings or crimes is difficult to trace. CNN placed the first report of suspicious clowns in South Carolina toward the end of August. Since then, sightings have occurred in places that include Australia, New Zealand, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Clown costume bans have been reported across the U.S. for this Halloween, though no such prohibitions have been implemented in Maine. A prosecutor in Greeley, Colorado, Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke, put it fancifully in a statement his office released about a month ago:
“Let’s face it, Hollywood has ruined the happy-go-lucky clown for many: ‘Poltergeist,’ ‘Saw,’ ‘Twisty’ … even the 1980s horror comedy ‘Killer Klowns from Outer Space.’ We see now why McDonald’s has slowly distanced itself from Ronald McDonald,” the statement read.
Rourke warned teens to avoid pulling threatening clown pranks. He cited reports from Greenville, South Carolina, where clowns were attempting to lure children into the woods; in Alabama, where nine people identifying themselves as clowns were charged with making terroristic threats; and in North Carolina, where a woman told police that a machete-wielding clown accosted her.
Sad local consequences
Clown sightings lit up Maine’s social media for a while but apparently in a tongue-in-cheek way. Clown Sightings Maine is a Facebook page dedicated to them that had 3,731 subscribers as of Thursday but little recent activity. The most recent posting, on Oct. 19, featured news photos of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
A posting on the page, apparently by the page’s organizers, said the page was created only to address “clowns that are a serious problem.” A map on the page lists about 30 sightings statewide. The map and a scan of Maine media revealed reported sightings in Alfred, Augusta, Bangor, Bridgton, Caribou, Orono, Portland, Sanford and Waterville. The majority occurred in southern Maine and within the first weeks of October, before the trend petered out.
In Orono, police responded to a report of a clown lurking on Oct. 2 outside The Reserve apartment complex but found nothing. Orono police Chief Josh Ewing said police would handle clown sightings like they would any other incident and asked that people who see suspicious activity, whether by clowns or someone else, to call police.
Through Thursday, none of the reports in Maine had been connected to any significant crime or act of violence.
Given all the negative attention to clown sightings, however, Waterville police Chief Joseph Massey has warned residents to avoid wearing clown costumes this Halloween, just to be safe.
“I think a lot of people are very concerned when they see people dressing up as creepy clowns,” Massey told the Morning Sentinel. “I’d hate to see someone react to someone wearing a clown costume in a violent or aggressive way because they feel threatened.”
In praise of real clowns
One former clown, Owls Head resident David Hauger, said he finds the warnings sad and the scares frustrating.
The pictures he has seen of clowns connected to supposed sightings, with people wearing clown makeup or masks, strike him as phonies. A real clown, Hauger said, can take three hours just to apply the facial makeup and prosthetics. The fakes don’t look anywhere near as sophisticated, Hauger said.
“You have to powder your face over and over again. It’s not something you do on a whim,” he said. “I know guys who would shave their eyebrows to get a good clown face on.”
Real performers study and modify their clown characters and clowning itself for years, sometimes with obsessive detail, Florey said
“A true clown takes time and effort to study every aspect of their costume to do a colorful, imaginative character that is not intimidating but larger than life — fun. People do not understand the amount the work that a true clown puts into the costume,” Florey said.
Professional clowns can earn $400 per hour in Boston or New York City playing parties and store openings, Florey said.
They study in schools, such as Circus Maine, a training and performance company in Portland, and often perform in senior and youth centers and at hospitals and elder care facilities as volunteers. Volunteers for fraternal organizations such as the Shriners raise money for Shriners hospitals for children.
Florey and Samiya said they have performed at a variety of locations and events — hospitals, parades, grand openings, weddings, birthday parties, dinners and other special occasions.
“People would hire me just to show up with a balloon bouquet and just surprise the hell out of them and embarrass them in front of all their friends,” said Florey, who charges $125 for the first hour and $75 for the rest.
That extraordinary, innocent connection
Fear of clowns can actually be a phobia, coulrophobia, with some people who suffer from it.
“Clowns do scare people. I will admit that. Not just young kids but some adults,” Hauger said. “I think that could be part of [the scare phenomenon]. I think the people who might be doing it as a bad deed are taking advantage of that fright.”
When they have been performing, Hauger and Florey occasionally run into people who have that fear but said it has nothing to do with them and their profession.
“The guys I know who are clowns are good people doing it for charity. They do it on their own time, so they have to be dedicated,” Hauger said. “You don’t just put on the makeup and costume and go. It’s a lot of work.”
The payoff for all the hard work, Florey said, is the magical connection that clowns can make with an audience — that innocent, imaginative, fairytale-ish bond between performer and audience that delights both.
“These kids are 100 percent invested in your belief that you are magical and special,” Florey said. “It is something that needs to be respected. There have been times where kids have seen me without my costume. When it happens and you break that fiction, you see the light just drain out of their eyes. It is kind of hard to describe.”
Clowning, Florey said, will survive the recent bad publicity about menacing clowns and evolve as it always has.
“My final thought on it is that it’s one of these things that happens that forces you to evolve, to take a step back to look at your act and find new ways,” Florey said. “A lot of magicians were angry when Penn and Teller came out because they exposed a lot of tricks magicians had, but it ultimately forced people to change their acts and get rid of the tired old acts. It made things improve.”
“I think the same thing will happen with this.”