Clowns And Candy: The Scariest Playground of My Childhood
By: Chris Darkes - May 9, 2018
Category : Nostalgia, Shoe Factory Road, Unsolved
Since the beginning of writing this blog, I’ve discussed strange occurrences, unexplained mysteries, and various case studies. I’ve cited the actual Shoe Factory Road as a large inspiration for my writings. I rarely mention individual stories I’ve been affected by, save for my great uncle’s house. But then last week, as I was unpacking boxes from a recent move, I got this bug to write about an experience that I don’t think I’ve ever written. The memory returned as I found myself watching the trailer for Warner Bros. new It film that’s been in the works for quite some time, finally making its debut. I took a deep breath before clicking “play”, as I really wanted it to be what everyone was hoping for. Well, I can honestly say my initial reaction is…it looks top notch. Sure there’s a few details I could nitpick, but for the most part it looks like it should be a faithful rollercoaster ride that’s every bit as good as the novel. With the exception of Tim Curry’s iconic role as the murderous clown, Pennywise (which I think it will be hard to top); the 1990 version had budget constraints, pacing issues, and the fact that they tried to cram a 1,138 page detail-laden book into a two part mini-series was ultimately its downfall.
I recalled the first time I saw the book on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. The chilling cover art of a clown in half-silhouette. Quite the departure from the my normal Goosebumps books I was accustomed to. It was sometime in the early 90’s, and ironically around the time of John Wayne Gacy’s execution. That coupled with The Bozo Show, quickly made me learn clowns can come in all forms. A few months later, for whatever reason I was in the family room playing with a toy truck when the TV news anchor came on with a haunting story. As she began the new segment, the graphic came on in the upper right side of the screen of a chocolate colored van. She began —
“We have a breaking story. Over the last few days people have spotted a man driving around suburban neighborhood parks dressed in a full clown outfit, attempting to lure children into his van with the promise of free balloons. One person was lucky enough to snap a photo of the van, before he disappeared. Police are urging you to report any suspicious activity, and hoping he doesn’t resurface.”
The story was both alarming, and sounded a bit like someone was playing a gag. Still, there was something that didn’t quite sit right. The photo was of a creepy brown van with the words “Ha Ha” in white paint crudely written on the side. I, like so many others, have always had a fear of clowns, and To Catch A Killer didn’t help things. But was there really a kidnapping clown on the loose in suburbia? A few weeks later, myself and three friends went to a nearby park we played at almost every day. The neighbors all knew us, and it was known to be safe. It was located off a smaller cul-de-sac about 5 minutes by foot from my house. The playground itself was sandwiched between two houses, and across the back of it ran a chain link fence and humongous arbor vitae stacked one by one, for both privacy and noise reduction. It was pretty well hidden, so unless you lived in the neighborhood, you would never suspect a park would be there.
We began playing on the swings, scooping the sand with the shovels, and basking in the beautiful July day. I took a breather in one of those metal cylindrical tubes, dodging the sun. I was laying on my stomach, while hearing my friends infectious laughter echo through the tunnel. In the distance, I could hear a high pitched braking sound. I looked up to the street, but didn’t see anything. As I was about to look back down, a brown colored van crawled right into view. It went to a complete stop just on the other side of the street, right in front of me. I froze. The background laughter had faded out. Everything seemed to slow to a nightmarish pace. Everything that is, except my thoughts. The driver was hard to make out, as they were back lit by the sun, but I was positive they had been looking in my direction. The van didn’t have the “Ha Ha” on it, but I just kept wondering how quickly they could have erased it, wondering if maybe they saw the same news piece I had. The van didn’t move an inch. Neither did I. I was glad I was sitting, cause my knees would have given out. The driver didn’t shut off the van. Nobody got out. The face didn’t move an inch. I daringly devised a plan to bolt through the other side of the park, and hope my friends would soon follow. But the height of the fence, and those thick, dense trees seemed impossible to make a clean exit. Then I realized there was only one way to get in, and one way to leave —right where that van was. I could feel my heart hammering through my head. As another thought zipped through, the van began to slowly back away, until out of sight. I could hear the gas peddle engaged, as it sped off.
I didn’t hesitate any longer, my shoes hit sand and I ran backwards from the tunnel, lightening fast. I turned around to alert my friends we need to go, and now. But as soon as I turned, they were nowhere in sight. I spun around from one side to the other. Something caught my eye. One of my friend’s shoes had been sticking out from under the wooden bridge . They had seen the van and hid too. Their face emerged, making sure the coast was clear. We raced to one of their parent’s houses, to call the police. Looking behind us, every few seconds.
When the police came by they asked everyone to describe the make and model of the van. Check. The details of the incident. Check. What the driver looked like…”Well, we couldn’t see exactly what they looked like,” I said politely. The cynical officer asked us if maybe the van was a repair person, or plumber. But admittedly, he stated “from the number of reports we’ve received, we want to take every precaution.” The officer said they would follow up on the incident, and inform us of any details.
My friend’s parents drove me home, and told my parents what had happened. For the next few months, summer didn’t really feel the same, as I didn’t want to go out alone. My friends didn’t want to play outside. That fall, I would hear stories in the hallways about the infamous Homie the Clown sightings around Illinois. Based off the In Living Color character of the same name. The rumors were all the same. Brown van. Dressed like a clown. Would try to steal kids. Whenever they’d come up, my friends would shoot a glance over, but neither of us would say anything. For us it was more than a tale to spin the yarn, it was moment in time etched into our memories. Whenever a new story about a terrifying clown surfaces, I immediately go to that thought. Maybe it was something the 4 of us turned into something bigger than it was. Maybe it was just a repair man who couldn’t read a map. But there was something so eerie about the whole occurrence, it’s hard to imagine there wasn’t something else underneath.
I say all this with a half-smile, as it serves as a great inspiration for another story in my creative war chest. I very much look forward to seeing the new It film, maybe holding off until I can watch it from the comfort of my own home.
Also published on Medium.