DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And what may have started with kids clowning around has become a national phenomenon. There have been countless sightings of creepy-looking clowns, a few wielding weapons, including an incident this week on the New York City Subway. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, dozens have been arrested and social media appears to be fueling copycats.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It started in August with reports of clowns trying to lure kids into the woods. Now there are countless others like Kroacky the Klown, Kaleb the Klown and Koko the Klown, some making threats and forcing schools into lockdown and other allegedly criminal clowns.
JUSTIN BEUCHLER: He had, like, red hair and a red nose. And it looked like - that he had a mask on.
SMITH: In Sterling Heights, Mich., 7-year-old Justin Beuchler told WDIV-TV he was attacked by a clown while he was playing outside.
JUSTIN: He grabbed my wrist and then used the other hand to drag the knife on my arm slowly.
SMITH: Social media has fueled fears into a flat-out frenzy.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Screaming) What is happening?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Get on the (unintelligible).
SMITH: A student at Penn State tweeted this video of students with nunchucks and hammers hunting down someone said to be dressed as a clown. A similar chase happened at Boston College, where some, like senior Jenny Kennedy, remain rattled.
JENNY KENNEDY: Nervous, yeah (laughter) - just creeped out about it.
STEVEN SCHLOZMAN: Yeah, clowns have been creepy for a long time.
SMITH: As Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor Steven Schlozman notes, the trope has run from Dickens to Stephen King's "It."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT")
TIM CURRY: (As Pennywise) I am your worst dream come true. I'm everything you ever were afraid of.
SMITH: Schlozman says especially today, when people wonder if someone on the street might actually be a terrorist, a clown with its off look and painted-on smile really resonates.
SCHLOZMAN: It's just standing there staring at you with the same expression on its face. And if you don't know what it wants, that's where our anxieties are, not being able to judge certain situations that we've always taken for granted as being safe or at least understandable. We are antsy.
SMITH: Meantime, the real clowns, the kind looking for gigs at kids' birthday parties are not amused. They're organizing a peace march in Tucson. As Stephen King himself tweeted, time to cool the clown hysteria. Most of them are good, cheer up the kiddies and make people laugh.
Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.