Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the circus, here’s the long-overdue second part of my study of the roots of the Fortean “phantom clown” phenomenon! The last installment featured five cultural precursors to the clowns we know and love to hate, and their parallels to descriptions of “phantom clowns”. Now, we will be looking at several cases from Fortean literature of curious characters that just might be pieces of the puzzle of the “phantom clown”.
Widely known as an “urban legend”, this is actually a well-substantiated case of crimes committed by suspect fitting the “phantom clown” description. (Loren Coleman’s definitive account of phantom clowns in Mysterious America includes two sightings of a “rabbit”!) Probably the best account is Bunny Man Unmasked, by Brian Conley. The basic facts are that in Fairfax County, Virginia in October 1970, police investigated two separate reports of crimes by an individual reportedly armed with an ax and wearing a… bunny suit. At least, this was the consensus of witnesses: One (at this point the trail is frustrated by a dead wikipedia link on top of the gap in police reports) is said to have compared his head garb to a Ku Klux Klan hood. In the first incident, he made a nighttime attack on a parked but occupied car with a hatchet, and shouted at the occupants. In the second, he exchanged words with a security guard who found him chopping at the support of a newly-built house. On both occasions, he shouted at the victims, whom he accused of invading his property. News and police reports indicate ample evidence, including a recovered hatchet and an anonymous message by an individual who claimed responsibility and, like the subject, made accusations of trespassing and abuse. The case was clearly taken quite seriously by police, more than might be expected for what amounted, apart from the bizarre costume and belligerent behavior of the suspect, to simple vandalism. However, no further incidents were reported, no suspect was caught or identified, and the investigation was quickly closed. Per Conley, the recorded investigation ended with a March 1971 summation that included a potentially poignant comment for Forteans: “The only people who have seen this so-called white rabbit have been (the security guard and) children of rather young ages.”
Bunny Man entered Forteana no later than 1977, when he was mentioned in Daniel Cohen’s Giants, Monsters and Little Men From Mars (where I first heard of him), and is surely one of the least mysterious figures in the lore. By absolutely all indications, he was exactly what he appeared to be: a mentally-disturbed vandal or vigilante who happened to make a very (um…) odd choice of disguise. However, there is at least a whiff of the anomalous in the witnesses’ descriptions: In addition to possible disagreement in descriptions of the costume, no witness could describe his face or identify his race, even though all reported that the face was uncovered, and the security guard in the second gave a precise description of his height and weight. Even this undoubtedly has prosaic explanations, for example the psychological phenomenon of “face blindness”. It might not make this case any less prosaic, but it presents a useful lesson on the role of individual perception that can be usefully applied for truly mysterious cases. It can, indeed, be considered as a possible factor in the one intrusion of the truly paranormal into the story, the supposed haunting of a landmark bridge in the “urban legend” cycle: This just might be a case of a sighted apparition being saddled with a clearly apocryphal “backstory”.
This is the most famous if not definitive case of a Fortean “phantom attacker”, and noted for parallels to “phantom clowns”. To recount the most basic facts very briefly, this entity was sighted many times in 19th-century London. Witnesses consistently described him as human in appearance but in bizarre dress and displaying extraordinary if not superhuman abilities, especially to make leaps. Many contemporary accounts assume him to be an otherwise ordinary prankster or deviant, and there is some evidence (including a report of an arrest) of prosaic criminals imitating his appearance. The “real” Jack, however, was clearly something else entirely. In particular, the belief that his characteristic leaps could have been produced by footgear with springs was clearly erroneous: The Nazis built such a thing, with superior technology and the less ambitious aim of absorbing impacts in parachute jumps, and discovered that users frequently suffered broken ankles. The further facts of sightings over a period of decades, several reports of being shot at to no effect, and occasional “high strangeness” such as breathing fire clearly preclude identification as a conventional human being.
One of the less-discussed aspects of Springheel Jack is his costume, and it is this that offers the most telling parallels to phantom clowns. Reasonably consistent descriptions indicate a tight-fitting costume of smooth or shiny material, colored white, black, or combinations thereof, with a cape and helmet. (A widely-quoted report compared the material to “white oilskin”, which was oil-covered canvas and other heavy fabric used historically in rain gear.) This corresponds with features of the costumes of harlequins and other historic precursors of the modern clown, including the use of black and white, which in turn have surfaced with some frequency as “anomalous” details of “phantom clown” costumes. Of course, harlequins were also known for acrobatics, and superhuman jumps are a not-uncommon feature of “phantom attacker” accounts. Then there is the helmet. It appears that this part of Jack’s garb was taken as resembling a contemporary police “custodian helmet”. (The same account cited above quotes Jack as announcing “We have caught Springheel Jack!”) However, this helmet had significant similarities to headgear used by the priesthood, particularly a form of the koukoulion used in Eastern Orthodox churches Thus, not for the first time, the costume of a “phantom clown” apparition shows a kinship to priestly vestments!
Lawton “Man In Plaid”
This is one of my favorites from the Fortean body of “hairy biped” reports, and direct inspiration for a character in my novel Coulrophobia. As recounted in Creatures of the Outer Edge (1978) by Coleman and Jerome Clarke, in 1971 a number of residents of Lawton, Oklahoma reported what they took to be a mentally-disturbed and very hirsute male roaming the area, and two witnesses reported seeing him outside their residences. These “close encounter” witnesses gave detailed and impressively consistent descriptions: Both described him as wearing dark-colored pants, which one described as “cut or torn off at the knees”. The other witness simply characterized the pants as “way too little”, and also reported a “plaid jacket”. Their accounts agreed even more closely on the bearing and demeanor of the subject. Both reported a slouching posture explicitly compared to an ape, and vivid impressions of fear and disorientation on the prowler’s part, eg. “a glazed expression, as if he didn’t quite understand where he was.” Other cases of Bigfoot-like entities said to be wearing clothes are known, and John Keel took special interest in documenting an impressive body of reports of entities said to wear checkered clothing.
The Lawton case is briefly mentioned in the “Hairy Biped” entry of Clarke’s Unexplained! (1993), as an example an “HB” which is “apparently… disheveled, bearded, deranged but entirely human”. The detailed account in Creatures, however, presents strong hints of the truly paranormal. In particular, both witnesses reported that the entity departed with dramatic leaps: One estimated that the “entity” dropped 15 feet to the ground from the balcony of a second-story apartment without apparent injury. The other recounted that the “man in plaid” leaped 12 feet horizontally over a dry backyard pond, and then promptly ran away with impressive speed. In summary, we have several common elements of “phantom clown” and/or “phantom attacker” accounts: Evidently human appearance, with strange expression and posture; tight-fitting clothing, including a shirt made of patterned material; and the ability to make unusual if not superhuman jumps.
As noted, John Keel is well-known for bringing “entities in plaid” to notoriety. In his famous and unnerving The Mothman Prophecies (1975), the bedroom invaders in checkered shirts share the stage with many more “phantom” entities. An account I find especially interesting for the purposes of this essay closes chapter 10 of the book. Keel reports at some length the ordeal of a UFO witness who also reported problems with “cattle rustlers” at her farm. She blamed a number of deaths and mutilations of her cattle on intruders wearing “white coveralls” which made them highly visible even at night. She claimed to have seen and pursued the intruders on many occasions, and in the process witnessed them “leap over high fences from standing starts”. She further recounted a “bedroom intruder” style incursion in which she awoke and found herself paralyzed as an an intruder appeared to enter her kitchen through a locked door, cross the room and leave through another door that had been locked. (Seeing an entity and experiencing paralysis on waking is considered a “flag” for a form of hallucination, sometimes called the “Old Hag” from folkloric interpretations.) Keel reported finding on his own further investigation that the intruder’s “exit” led only to a ten-foot-drop.
This story presents a case of entities bearing a fair resemblance to “phantom clowns” (also quite strikingly to “Springheel Jack”) being blamed for cattle mutilation and other supposedly mysterious animal deaths and disappearances, an association already widely reported with other Fortean phenomena such as UFOs and cryptids. Unfortunately, this is an area where Forteans have fared poorly against skeptical investigators, especially on the causes of supposed “mutilation” of carcasses. It is worth saying that animals certainly can die in unusual numbers from causes not readily apparent, and that even basically explainable cases can be subject to unidentified factors: For example, cases of “red tide” poisoning would have been completely mysterious historically, and scientists still debate why the toxic algae responsible “bloom” in specific times and places. More importantly, the association of reports of paranormal phenomena with the death or disappearances of animals is much too strong to discount as “unreal” or insignificant. In other words, even if Fortean phenomena do not in any sense “cause” animals to die in large numbers, it would still appear very much as if one “follows” the other.
“The Hat Man”
This last example came to my attention through Deena West Budd’s charming Weiser Field Guide to Cryptozoology (2010), which mentions “The Hat Man” in a chapter dedicated to entities called “shadow people”. Budd describes shadow people as “sometimes humanoid in form but without defined features… Many times (they) appear as two-dimensional or diaphanous.” “The Hat Man” in particular appears to wear a “fedora”, and is said to be more “clearly defined” than others of his kind. Encounters are described as extending from brief glimpses to being pursued or attacked (Budd specifically mentions sexual assaults).
Budd characterizes “shadow people” as “relatively new”, at least to Fortean terminology..In the author’s opinion, they present strong parallels to much older accounts, including Medieval folklore of witches, vampires and fairies. Mere “sightings” of shadow people are easily accounted for as hallucinatory or truly spectral. It seems likely that the “Old Hag” hallucination is at work here. (Repressed memory presents itself as a further and especially alarming possibility.) But there would appear to be just enough here to place these entities in the category of truly problematic “phantom attackers”. It doesn’t hurt that the “Hat Man” in particular converges strikingly with many such shadowy, suited and evidently not-quite unreal entities, including mime-like variants of the “phantom clown”. Finally, these entities offer potential support for a widely-expressed suspicion that Fortean entities are in some sense “shape shifters”: In the framework of this hypothesis, a “shadow person” is intelligible as the initial or even “authentic” manifestation of the same beings or phenomena which appear in “complete” form as more classifiable Fortean entities.
There you have it, a representative sample of Fortean kin to the “phantom clown”! What are they? I don’t know, but I do know I would not care to meet them.