LOS ANGELES • A series of creepy clown sightings across the United States has caused a wave of hysteria, forcing police and schools to scramble to contain the spreading jitters, and even the White House to weigh in.
The spooky sightings were first reported in August in South Carolina, when police were called in to investigate what turned out to be bogus accounts of men dressed as clowns trying to lure children into the woods.
But similar sightings have since been reported in more than a dozen states, with the authorities forced to react to stories of clowns lurking outside schools or businesses, armed clowns driving around in a van, and clowns prowling neighbourhoods.
One school in Ohio even shut down over security concerns after a woman said she was attacked by a man dressed as a clown. And hundreds of students at Penn State University, in Pennsylvania, went on the hunt for jesters on Tuesday night after reports of creepy clown sightings.
The phenomenon has become a social media sensation, with the hashtag #IfISeeAClown trending on Twitter and the @Spooky Clowns account attracting 186,000 followers.
Meanwhile, Instagram has exploded with posts of people dressed in clown costumes staring menacingly at the camera, and photos of clowns appealing for understanding or offering free hugs.
The hysteria spread further this week with officials in California and Oregon forced to respond to numerous clown sightings - largely considered to be hoaxes - and social media threats against schools, also considered to be pranks.
The White House weighed in on the phenomenon this week saying the sinister sightings, which have led to about a dozen arrests, should be taken seriously and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security had been consulted on how to handle the scare.
"Obviously, this is a situation that local law enforcement authorities take quite seriously and they should carefully and thoroughly review, you know, perceived threats to the safety of the community, and they should do so prudently," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
Experts said the epidemic of real or imagined sightings and ensuing hysteria could be explained by "coulrophobia", a long-documented phenomenon that increased in the wake of the 1986 Stephen King novel It, which featured a malevolent clown. The book was later turned into a hit movie.
Dr Matthew Lorber, director of the child and adolescent psychiatry programme at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, said: "The last number that I have heard is that one in almost 10 people reports a phobia of clowns. For kids, to not be able to see somebody's real face is what makes the clown so scary."