HADERA — The clowns crossed a line. That’s what “Kfir,” a teenager from Hadera, said Wednesday night, days after a 10-year-old Beersheba girl was apparently pepper-sprayed by two youths dressed as clowns.
It was well past 11 p.m. and Kfir and more than a dozen teenage boys straddled their electric bikes while on patrol in the seaside Israeli city hours after finishing Sukkot dinner with their families. A text that went viral on social media in Israel earlier this week showed a list of cities the “scary clowns” planned to terrorize in the coming days, and Hadera’s turn was listed as October 4, Sukkot eve.
Outside Kaplan Park, Kfir and his friends weren’t taking any chances. Though in online forums Hadera teens talked about packing knives to allegedly stab a clown when the moment of truth comes, Kfir and his friends said that other than the bike locks, they were unarmed.
On the other hand, he may have said that because virtually all of his friends seemed convinced this reporter was an undercover cop.
Like many a fad imported from the United States, this one took a little while to get to Israel. It was about a year ago that a rash of “creepy clown” sightings were reported in towns across the US, though there was little actual evidence of hostile clown activity and life quickly returned to normal.
Many Israelis blame the phenomenon on the recent theatrical release in Israel of the remake of Stephen King’s “It.” The book and film are mainly known for “Pennywise”, an evil clown who is one of the many manifestations of a shape-shifting monster that hunts the children of a small town in Maine.
Over the past week, Israel Police have detained dozens of youths across the country suspected of taking part in the clown mayhem, allegedly by running up and scaring people in public places. Police addressed the “criminal and unacceptable phenomenon” in a statement released Tuesday.
Police said that in the vast majority of cases the young people are not looking to hurt anyone physically, rather just to scare them for the sake of a prank. This includes a group of four Dimona youths – all under the age of 12 – who had dressed up as clowns to scare random strangers in the Negev town “and did not know the consequences of what they were doing and expressed regret, and were released from custody.”
The police also said that they mainly fear that “someone will view the prank as a threat and violently attack these youths.” They called on the public “not to take the law into their own hands” and to not harm any youths dressed as clowns.
That message apparently didn’t make it to Almog, a 16-year-old Hadera local who was walking around the Givat Bus’el neighborhood with a broomstick Wednesday night ready for action.
“If they [the clowns] come at me, I speak good English so I’ll say (in English) ‘what’s up bro?’” Almog said, and then began twirling the broomstick like nunchucks. His friend remained silent, but was wearing a hoodie for the Beitar Jerusalem FC hooligan group “La Familia”.
“He’s not a member; that’s just to scare the clowns,” Almog said.
Foot and bike patrols
All across town there were packs of kids in their teens and younger roaming on foot and on electric bikes, carrying sticks and updating each other with rumors spread on WhatsApp about clown sightings. Everyone had heard about several in Hadera, even some Wednesday night, but none said they’d actually seen a clown themselves. The Sukkot holiday meant that school was out for the rest of the week, and schoolkids all across Israel could make a late night of the clown hunting.
Sixteen-year-old Sa’ar, the apparent leader of a teenage electric bike patrol, said that if they found a clown they’d “catch him, tie him up, and call another 250 kids to come.” He laughed when asked if he’d call the police, though he also clarified that “we just want to protect the kids” and looked genuinely concerned and confused when he asked “why are they doing this? Why did this start?”
Teenage bravado and talk of vigilante action were common in Hadera Wednesday night, and also on one of many WhatApp groups devoted to clown-hunting. In one group, “Clowns in Hadera”, a teenage boy posted a picture of an arsenal of knives, hammers and sticks, with the caption “I’m ready”. Moments later, several group members sent messages asking why his cache included a plunger.
Kids in the group repeatedly posted emojis of knives and spoke of an impending clown bloodbath. At the same time, they wrote things like “I heard there’s a clown in our neighborhood but I’m not leaving the house unless someone else is coming.”
Over the past few days, a slew of “scary clown” Instagram pages have been launched, where users post pictures of Pennywise-style clowns and threaten more attacks. In most cases the comments consist of Israeli teens saying things like “Come to Lod if you have the nerve” or “Come to Tirah, you’ll leave dead”. Not to be outdone, one Israeli teen with a perhaps flawed sense of place wrote on a clown post Wednesday, “Come to Modi’in if you’re man enough.”
Contacted on Instagram on Wednesday night, the admin of “Officialclownil” said “every clown will be in a different spot in Hadera, booya!”
When asked what their demands are, there was no answer.
Just after midnight, the streets of the Givat Olga neighborhood of Hadera were thick with teenagers and pre-teens huddled in packs waiting for clown updates and darting off into the alleyways with sticks. The working-class neighborhood has taken strides in recent years to cast off its reputation as the bad part of town, but the stigma remains. Asked if everybody is at the park late because of the clowns, local 15-year-old Mordechai said “nah bro, that’s just Olga.”
It didn’t seem like the smartest place for a teenager to go out in clown gear looking to scare folks, and it was also the type of place where every local kid who spoke to this reporter had him “made” as an undercover cop and asked to see his police ID card.
In a sukkah next to a run-down apartment block, four young women played the Israeli card game “Yaniv” and ate watermelon seeds. They were all between the ages of 19 and 25, and rolled their eyes at the clown business. It had dominated the talk at their family tables during the Sukkot meal, and their younger siblings – and parents and grandparents — were obsessed with the new threat.
All four women said the new “It” movie was to blame, though Inbal Alma, 21, said she’d heard a story a couple of years ago about a couple “somewhere in the mercaz (central Israel)” that was making out in a parked car at night when somebody in a clown suit ran up and smashed their windows.
In the end, there were apparently no confirmed clown sightings in Hadera on Wednesday night, but it wasn’t due to a lack of vigilance.
Back near the park, a teenage girl cursed into her phone and hung up, shaking her head. She said it was a clown calling and threatening her that he was downstairs from her house. She said she knows it’s her friends and she and everybody else at school have been getting prank calls like that for days.
Just then somebody yelled “clown” and a group of kids raced down the street further into the neighborhood. Coming around a corner there was a whiff of pepper spray in the air, and the kids began to cough. No one knew who sprayed it, or they just didn’t want to own up to it to an undercover cop.
“David,” 16, was holding a stick and walking shirtless through the neighborhood, which helped him display a tattoo on his back of a scorpion clutching a Star of David in its pincers.
He seemed older than the rest of the kids, and a bit weary of the clown craze.
Unprompted, he admitted “I was a clown a couple days ago” and said he wore a mask and scared people. “I didn’t actually do that,” he then deadpanned.
He did want to make one thing clear though – “all of the people wearing the masks are kids and the people looking for clowns are the same people dressing as the clowns.”
He shrugged — having for some reason just commandeered this reporter’s notebook — and asked, “What, did you think they [the clowns] came from outer space?”
(Some names have been changed to protect the innocent – and the clowns.)