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His shiny blue vest sparkles in the sunlight, accentuating scarlet spiked hair, snow-white face and brilliant red lips painted in a permanent smile.

Kids and adults run across the parking lot to catch up with Happy D. Klown and pose for selfies.

Others hang back and stare, wary of the clown in their midst.

Clowns. We love them. Hate them. Trust them. Fear them.

Few creatures instill such visceral feelings as the clown.

Experts have many theories on what makes some otherwise rational people freak out at the sight of clowns while others adore them -- and become them.

* The brain cannot come to terms with the disconnect between the transparent artificiality of the greasepaint and what may or may not lie beneath.

* The character defies and mocks societal norms, leaving us uncomfortable and unsettled.

* And history tells us the clown, the jester, the trickster can never be totally trusted.

But “real” clowns like Lincoln’s Happy D. Klown, aka Todd Brauch, and Shades, aka Teresa Forst, say their purpose and premise is nothing more than to bring a smile to a face, joy to a heart.

Real fear

True coulrophobia -- excessive fear of clowns -- is rare, according to psychology experts. Some estimates put it at 12 percent of the population.

Far more common is a disdain of clowns: Approximately 43 percent of Americans say they fall into that category, according to a 2014 survey by Rasmussen Reports. Forty percent of those polled said they like clowns. The rest were ambivalent.

Among adults 18 to 39, a full 60 percent said they wish clowns would just go away. Women are more apt to dislike clowns than men.

The clown industry feels the effects. According to the World Clown Association, there is a growing shortage of professional clowns. Between 2004 and 2014, membership dropped by 1,000, and in 2014 only 2,500 clowns remained on the rosters, according to a story in the New York Daily News.

Clown International has lost 90 percent of its members from its peak in the 1980s, according to various news reports.

Locally, Lincoln’s Calliope Clown Alley No. 40 disbanded this summer after 50 years of clowning, said Forst, a longtime member.

Young people just aren’t pursuing the profession, preferring to provide clown-type entertainment including balloon twisting, face painting and magic, without the greasepaint, floppy shoes and colorful hair, she said.

Brauch started about 27 years ago, transforming a seasonal gig as Santa Claus (for the past 32 years) into a year-round second profession. His day job is in insurance.

Forst got her start 30 years ago -- a single mother looking to join the Havelock neighborhood’s annual parade dressed herself, her daughters and neighborhood kids as clowns for the event. Lincoln’s longtime Jeloo the Clown (Marie Ludwig) took Forst under her wing, mentoring her on the art of clowning.

Jeloo is retired now, and Forst, who works for CHI Health Saint Elizabeth Cancer Care Center, juggles clown gigs four days a week.

Despite people’s professed aversion to clowns, Brauch and Forst say their calendars are full, with bookings up to four years out.

For them, clowning is a labor of love.

“It’s not what you receive that fills your heart with joy, it’s what you give that makes the heart fill with joy,” Brauch said.

Some people don't feel that joy.

Margee Kerr, a sociology professor with the University of Pittsburgh, who specializes in the study of fear, blames the masked face for inspiring fear and loathing of clowns.

“It registers as an error in our perception,” she said of the frozen painted smile and eyes that may not match. “It’s more like a monster than something that is supposed to be fun and happy.

“We see them with their over-sized hands and feet," Kerr said in a telephone interview. "They don’t look like what we expect a human to look like. Plus they are often unpredictable in their behavior,  trapping into all the triggers for fear.”

A historical context

Court jesters, harlequins and tricksters have entertained people for thousands of years -- and across nearly every culture, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Egyptian pharaohs had pygmy clowns. Imperial China has YuSze, a court clown. Every Native tribe has legends of tricksters, from Iktomi (Sioux) to Napi (Black Foot) to the coyote (found in many tribes).

These early-day clowns were silly and mischievous.

“(Clowns are) taking behaviors that were considered taboo and making fun of them or pushing them to the extreme to highlight the worst qualities,” Kerr said. “Often they had acts portraying overly sexualized or drunken behavior --  abnormal social behaviors.”

Early clowns/jesters performed on theatrical stages for adults.

In his book, “The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi,” Andrew McConnell Stott explains the shift from laughter-evoking clown to something sad, dark and even sinister beneath the costume. Unlike his pantomiming predecessors who usually wore a bit of rouge on their cheeks, Grimaldi took clowning to the extreme from his clothes to his face paint to his damaging physical comedy.

Grimaldi used to joke: “I am GRIM ALL DAY, but I make you laugh at night.”

Clowning destroyed his body, leaving him disabled and in constant pain. He died in 1837, a penniless alcoholic.

Stott credits author Charles Dickens, who wrote Grimaldi’s memoirs, with laying the foundation for scary clowns -- if not inventing them, “by creating a figure who is literally destroying himself to make his audiences laugh,” Linda Rodriguez McRobbie wrote in a 2013 article for Smithsonian Magazine.

Dickens made people wonder what was going on underneath the make-up.

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Then came Jean-Gaspard Deburau, and his angry Pierrot, a white-faced clown who fatally bludgeoned a boy for hurling insults at him. Ultimately, Deburau was acquitted of murder.

By the mid-20th century, clowns were re-purposed, representing more child-appropriate behavior and fun, Kerr said.

Clowns moved from the stage to the circus tent, where their antics -- still exaggerated and outside of behavioral norms -- were less alarming and more harmlessly silly. Their job was to bring comic relief to the death-defying, breathtaking acts of aerial acrobats, lion tamers and flame-throwing jugglers.

Television transformed clowns again, with Howdy Doody’s Clarabell, Bozo, Red Skelton and later Ronald McDonald switching from adult-oriented humor to more innocent, happy characters.

But while these clowns were endearing themselves to the younger set, something evil -- both real and imaginary -- continued to lurk behind the scenes. Evil clowns. Killer clowns.

In 1849, Edgar Allan Poe published “Hop-Frog,” a story of a physically deformed and mercilessly teased court jester who convinces the king and his court to dress as orangutans covered in tar and then sets them on fire.

Wheeler Winston Dixon, University of Nebraska-Lincoln film studies professor and pop culture expert, credited author Robert Bloch with taking the clown out of the circus and putting him in unexpected and startling locations.

In 1960, Bloch wrote “The Clown at Midnight,” in which a once-funny clown turns terrifying after hours. Dixon calls the hard-to-find essay "groundbreaking."

"The Clown at Midnight" served as the inspiration for Stephen King’s murderous Pennywise in “IT.”

Since then, the evil clown has persistently scared and entertained -- from “Poltergeist” to "American Horror Story’s" “Freak Show,” to Batman’s multiple incarnations of the Joker.

Then there is real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy, whose Pogo the clown persona earned him a visit with former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. Gacy ultimately was convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering 33 boys and young men in the 1970s. He was executed by lethal injection in 1994.

“It is precisely the connection to childhood and innocence that makes clowns a logical place to see fears embodied,” said Dustin Kidd, professor of sociology, popular culture and social media at Temple University.

We invite them into our homes for birthday parties. They entertain us at the circus. They toss candy to us in parades. We trust them, Kidd said in a telephone interview.

So when they turn, it makes them far more scary and potentially more dangerous than if we ran into a costumed werewolf on the street.

“The thing about werewolves and zombies are so fantastical we don’t think they exist,” Kidd said.

But clowns do. Clowns are real.

Fear as a choice

Enter the scary clown phenomenon of 2016. Across the United States and in Europe, people are reporting clowns. Clowns in the woods. Clowns following them through parks. Clowns jumping out from behind trees. Clowns posing in front of schools and posting nefarious messages on social media.

Clowns carrying weapons.

Most are pranks, but police, public officials, school administrators and even retailers have taken the sightings seriously. There have been arrests for disturbing the peace and making terroristic threats.

Lincoln and Omaha public school officials sent letters to parents promising to keep kids safe and swiftly discipline those who perpetrate scary clown pranks. Target pulled its scary clown mask from store shelves. A Connecticut school banned clown costumes for Halloween. McDonald’s has directed signature mascot Ronald McDonald to “lay low.”

Yet, at the same time, people seek out opportunities to encounter evil clowns lurking in the dimly lit hallways of haunted houses across the country.

It’s fun fear as opposed to true terror, Kerr said.

“Fear in a safe place is beneficial in a lot of ways," she said. "When you voluntarily engage with scary material, it becomes like any challenge -- like running a 5K or climbing a tree. You are guaranteed to come out on the other side just fine. There is no real actual danger and you get the satisfaction from a personal challenge."

Fear intoxicates and seduces us, said Kidd.

“Which is why we watch horror movies, read horror novels and visit haunted houses. If you live a life with a lot of safety outlets you want to push the boundaries a bit.”

But whether it’s for laughs or chills, these are places where clown sightings are not unanticipated, Dixon said.

“Clowns are very site specific,” he said.

“You expect to see them at the circus, at amusement shows and in entertainment situations like rodeos.

“You do not expect to see them in public places,” he said, such as outside of your door at midnight, popping out of the bushes or roaming the parks after dark.

“If I was walking in a park … and a clown popped out, I would not be very happy. I wouldn’t believe the clown was there for a good reason,” Dixon said. “What is the motivation for doing that? I don’t think it is benign.”

Kerr takes a harsher view.

“Scaring people who have not chosen to engage … is on the same plane as assault and harassment. They are doing things people have not consented to,” she said. “I honestly don’t see a difference between dressing in a scary costume and scaring someone in a parking lot, and assaulting someone in a parking lot. You should not scare people without their consent.”

Brauch, Lincoln's Happy D. Klown, equates scary clown pranksters with bullies.

“It disappoints me,” he said. “They are doing it for themselves. It’s more about what they are receiving -- making people scared, and it's nothing about the giving. I like to be the guy who fills your heart with joy more than anything else.”

He's working to turn the scary clown phenomenon upside down.

“This is an opportunity for the happy clowns to shine and deliver a positive message to the people,” Brauch said.

Said Forst: “I’m worried someone will take it too far. If it doesn’t stop, someone is going to get hurt -- either a real clown or an evil clown who jumps out at the wrong person. Clowns are supposed to bring joy and happiness, not fear. That is the part that hurts."

“Scary clowns aren’t really clowns. They are just people in scary costumes. … They’re imposters. A real clown would never hurt you. They are here to provide joy, happiness and giggles.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSerinandersen.

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