What's hidden in the Great Clown Panic of 2016

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Being fearful of people because of their appearance is a form of bigotry. So those suffering from coulrophobia will have to be sent to Bozo re-education school.

LET'S GET SERIOUS about clowns and the Great Clown Panic of 2016.

Well, not too serious, because it is much ado about very little.

Do you really think clowns carry chainsaws under their pantaloons? When Judy Collins sang "Send in the Clowns," was she ordering up a hit job?

Isn't Target removing clown masks (but not the body costumes) from its shelves an overreaction? How about school districts banning clown masks from Halloween parties? And McDonald's benching Ronald?

Are these prudent moves or craven surrender to crazy clown posse internet rumors?

I wouldn't be surprised to find the number of concealed weapon permits has zoomed, even though a Google search turned up no murders by killer clowns.

The report of 23 people killed by a clown in Canada was fake, but there was a true story in Greenville, S.C., that clowns unsuccessfully tried to lure children into the woods.

There are scattered reports of clowns making "threats," mostly pranks by teenage boys and girls who need a timeout. The hysteria is fanned by social media, says clown Derek Lee.

It has gotten so bad that "real" clowns, professional entertainers, have begun to worry about their safety when they go out in costume. Is it open season on clowns? Get a grip, people.

While there is a name for fear of clowns - coulrophobia - it is not listed as a disorder by the World Health Organization or the American Psychiatric Association.

It may soon be. Then it will have a charity to "raise awareness," followed by a Coulrophobia Day and a ribbon, probably pumpkin orange, for us to wear to fight the disorder.

But wait! What is a clown but a human in makeup?

Being fearful of people because of their appearance is a form of bigotry.

So those suffering from coulrophobia will have to be sent to Bozo re-education school.

Taffy the Clown works out of Collingdale, doing about 150 children's parties a year. She thinks the media harms her profession when reporting on "clown" incidents.

"If someone puts on a police uniform and robs a bank, the media would say someone impersonated a cop," says Taffy.

About bad clowns, she says, "I would like everyone to know that they are not clowns, they are criminals in clown suits."

Some of her clients "are concerned about my safety getting to the party and after the party," says Taffy, who's been clowning for six years and says 75 percent of her bookings are children's parties, the rest corporate events.

Her clown business has been hurt, but not drastically.

Lee owns D & J Costumes and Entertainment in the Northeast, and noticed calls for clowns dropping. He countered by offering magic performers, face painters, and popcorn and cotton candy machines.

His customers are moving from clowns to "a balloon artist or a character because they don't want any problems with their guests," says Lee, who performs as Dee and has been in the business for 21 years. A graduate of Ringling Bros. Clown College in Sarasota, Fla., he says, "I know more adults are afraid of clowns than children are."

Sheila Jones, who owns the Collaborative Workshop in Southwest Philly, saw the business drop coming. "With clowns under a cloud, we got more into building a character," she says, "sort of a cartoon look."

The Great Clown Panic can be traced to several sources, one being the Stephen King movie It, says Lee, because "the clown was killing people. That stays with people." Indeed.

Other notable evil clowns/clown characters include those in the 1988 horror comedy Killer Klowns in Outer Space, the Joker in Batman and even Krusty the Clown on The Simpsons.

Those were all a while ago. What accounts for the current Great Clown Panic?

"People have nothing else to do so they go on social media, send out hoaxes," says Lee with annoyance.

Will the Great Clown Panic of 2016 die out after Halloween?

If so, what will be the next fantasy fear to roil the reality challenged? Tainted Thanksgiving turkeys? Zika mosquitoes at the mall? Suicide bomber Santas?

Get a grip, people. A tight grip.

stubyko@phillynews.com