FARGO - When children meet her clown persona for the first time, Cynthia Sillers said they sometimes are afraid because they've never met her before and the makeup is strange to them.
But that usually doesn't last as Tinse the clown begins her repertoire of silly magic tricks, balloon animals and plays on word.
Her favorite is a pin that says "IITYWYGMAH." They'd ask what that meant and she'd say "If I tell you will you give me a hug?" And they'd say, yes, but what's it mean, and she'd see how long she could rinse and repeat.
But the hysteria over scary clowns that's swept the country makes her wonder about how the next gig will go.
"I'm just wondering about small children, if there's going to be any kind of a reaction, if they will have heard these stories about these scary clowns, and how they'll react to me."
It began in South Carolina in late August where children reported that clowns were trying to lure them into the woods. Soon there would be clown sightings all over the country and a few arrests as well. Last week, police in Crookston, Minn., arrested a teen for allegedly dressing as a clown and chasing children with a knife.
Even McDonald's is bowing to anti-clown frenzy, as the fast-food chain announced Tuesday, Oct. 11, that it is taking the trend into consideration when deploying its mascot Ronald McDonald at community events due to the "current climate around clown sightings," according to the Associated Press.
Debbie Fowler, a Fargo woman who performs as LaDitzy, bristled at the news media calling these pretenders "clowns." The goal of a professional clown is to bring joy to people not frighten them, she said. "We're
ambassadors of laughter."
In fact, she said, clowns are trained to recognize signs that someone is uncomfortable and to leave that person alone.
Tough times for clowns
Attitudes towards clowns haven't always straddled the line between funny and frightening.
Fowler said back in the days of Bozo the Clown and comedian Red Skelton, who often performed as a clown, clowns were seen as purely comic characters.
But somewhere along the way, clowns gained a sinister reputation. When serial killer John Wayne Gacy was caught in 1978, news outlets reported that he used to entertain as Pogo the Clown. The villain of Stephen King's novel "It," published in 1986, was a demonic entity that preyed on children in the form of Pennywise the Clown.
Tricia Manuel, the owner of the Mooseburger Clown Arts Camp in Buffalo, Minn., and a clown named Pricilla Mooseburger, said the recent hysteria, amplified by social media, is something different.
"I just came from the Midwest Clown Association's yearly convention and it was the topic everybody was talking about," she said. "It makes us all very concerned about how we will be perceived when we go out in the public and whether we'll be welcome."
"We're already dealing with the haters, people who don't like clowns and feel compelled to verbally express themselves in our presence when we're out there performing," she said. "We've been dealing with it for a long time but this has brought it to a new level."
Clowns have reported getting nasty phone calls at their business, she said, and some, fearing for their safety, have decided not to go to gigs dressed up until after Halloween.
Fowler said she worries for the safety of her clown friends because of the hysteria. A clown friend was surrounded by four cops in Tulsa, Okla., recently because someone saw her waiting in her car for a birthday party to start, Fowler said. "That was very frightening for her."
Fargo had its own false alarm earlier this month when, in what may have been the city's first case of clown profiling, residents called police about a clown driving around town. Officers did track down the clown and said she was just on her way to a gig, not trying to scare anyone.
Destroying the art
Perhaps one of the reasons clowns can frighten people is because they're covered up so completely that it's difficult to tell who is under all that makeup, according to Manuel. But anyone in a mask could be frightening, she said.
For Sillers, when she covers her face in white makeup, puts on the red nose and dons her curly blue wig, she transforms into Tinse. She sees a clown as not a human, but a spirit of happiness and mirth. Most will go so far as to wear gloves so that no skin shows at all, though she doesn't do that since it's hard to make balloon sculptures with gloves. To stay in character, many clowns will not even eat or drink while in costume.
"You're not a human, you're a clown," said Fowler.
To be a clown, it takes more than just clowning around. Sillers and Fowler describe training in various aspects of the artform, from putting on makeup, to magic tricks, to making balloon sculptures. Both trained at the famous Clown Camp held every year in La Crosse, Wis.
Sillers said she's always enjoyed clowns but was inspired to become one after attending a clown-ministry workshop at Olivet Lutheran Church in Fargo in the early 1980s. The instructor showed that clowns could not only bring laughter but also healing, she said. At the end of the service, the instructor handed everyone balloons with the word "love" on it, she said. "Everyone stood around in the sanctuary at the end of the service holding these balloons. It was quite powerful. That was his message, 'Love one another.'"
Fowler said she first dressed up as a clown to entertain family at an aunt's birthday party. "She really encouraged me. She said, 'Debbie you should really be a clown,' because it just came natural to me."
Like any vocation, clowning is more than just training, there's also a code of ethics.
Clowns of America International, an industry group, has eight clown commandments that run the gamut from requiring clowns to perform in good taste, to not drinking or smoking while in costume. One commandment requires clowns to get out of their makeup and costume as soon as they can after a show so that, should they be involved in some negative incident, they won't harm the "good name of clowning."
But the people dressed as scary clowns have no such code.
"To have this epidemic destroy this art," Fowler said, "it's just so sad."