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It's a menace stalking America — a menace called "clowning."
In something like a dog chasing its tail, more clowns are being sighted across the country as news organizations (NBC News among them) have chronicled sightings of clowns — invariably described as "creepy."
So many, in fact, that the website Atlas Obscura has launched a useful interactive map to help you keep track of them.
In a widely cited survey, the polling firm Rasmussen reported in 2014 that 43 percent of Americans "don't like" clowns. More recently, the annual Chapman University Survey of American Fears found that clowns were a cause of significant anxiety for 6.8 percent of Americans in 2015.
It's not as if the fears are anything new — think of Batman's nemesis the Joker and serial killer John Wayne Gacy, the "Killer Clown," after all — but the recent wave of creepy clown sightings appears to be a form of what cognitive scientists call confirmation bias — the likelihood of noticing information that tends to support your preconceptions over information that tends to contradict it.
In a new book, appropriately titled "Bad Clowns," urban legend debunker Benjamin Radford finds that there are only about a dozen confirmed accounts of actual evil clowns on record.
"Statistically you'd be more likely to win the lottery than to encounter an evil person who also happens to be a clown," writes Radford, a regular contributor to Snopes.com, the handy site that investigates urban legends.
(In just the past week, Snopes has published eight articles debunking evil clown reports.)
It's a slander that has put real, make-'em-laugh clowns and their defenders on the defensive.
"Professional clowns, either with a circus or a hometown clown who does birthday parties, try hard to protect their image as being family friendly," Mike Becvar, who works as Sir Toony Van Dukes in Northern Virginia, told NBC News last month.
No less an authority than Stephen King — whose 1986 novel "IT" depicted a supernatural being that takes the form of a clown — recently felt compelled to weigh in:
Meanwhile, the reports keep rolling in.
Today in Clown News
Just on Monday alone, clowns were arrested, reported to have been arrested or accused of having made threats in:
- Indian Trail, N.C., where Union County sheriff's deputies said Monday that they'd arrested a man in clown makeup who was trespassing on a store's property while carrying a hatchet.
- Crookston, Minn., where police said Monday that a 15-year-old boy dressed up as a clown was arrested over the weekend, allegedly while carrying a large butcher knife.
- Spartanburg, S.C., where Spartanburg County sheriff's deputies said they're investigating a (poorly spelled) threat posted Monday on social media that a clown will attack two high schools on "holloween."
- Albuquerque, N.M., where police said Monday that three juveniles wearing clown masks were issued a citation Sunday for brandishing an air gun near a Babies "R" Us store.
- Lockport, La., where police said Monday that a 29-year-old man wearing a clown mask was chatged over the weekend with frightening the public by "wearing a mask outside of certain holidays."
- Green Bay, Wis., where police beefed up security Monday at Brown County schools after a threat was posted on social media with a photo of a clown.
- Kenasha, Wis., where police said Monday that a 4-year-old child was placed with Human Services after the child's parents were arrested for allegedly chasing cars in the street while wearing clown masks.
- South Sioux City, Neb., where police said Monday that they'd cited a juvenile for disturbing the peace for allegedly scaring children by wearing a clown mask.
- Milford, Pa., where school officials said Monday that two middle school students will be disciplined for sending a text claiming that a clown would attack Milford Middle School at 1:14 p.m. on Tuesday.
(And it's not just an American phenomenon. The BBC reported Monday that as many as 50 "creepy clowns" were reported to police in Wales over the weekend.)
In Roanoke, Va., the charitable Kazim Shrine Clowns said Monday that they refuse to be silenced.
"When we go to hospitals and you see a child that's been in the bed and had a really hard time and they smile and reach up to you, that's really important to us," Loki the Clown told NBC station WSLS.
"You can look at us and see we're happy, nice clowns," Loki said. "That's what we want to project."