Generally speaking, it's not ghosts that make Halloween scary for Chicago schoolkids--it's bombers, kids who lie in wait with eggs and shaving cream for younger, weaker prey. When I was growing up, it was whispered that some bombers had filled Super Soakers with a potion of Nair: if you got shot in the head, that was it--you were bald.
But in the fall of 1991, kids were afraid of something even worse. I was a fifth grader at Murphy elementary, and rumors circulated among my classmates for weeks, coming to a boil as Halloween approached. It wasn't safe to walk home alone, he was in our neighborhood, someone had seen him cruise past in his van just the other day. We called him Homey the Clown, and if you're a product of the Chicago schools old enough to buy beer but young enough to remember the ThunderCats, chances are you did too.
Homey the Clown, of course, was the name of a character played by Damon Wayans on the early-90s sketch-comedy show In Living Color. (Wayans is also slated to star in a 2007 movie named after Homey.) The character was an angry black ex-con who carried a sock for knocking bratty kids upside the head. His catchphrase, you might recall, was "Homey don't play that."
But the Homey we feared was a man dressed as a clown who'd supposedly been roaming the neighborhood and luring children into his white van--or maybe just snatching them and throwing them inside. No one at Murphy was too sure about the details.
"I remember the kids talking about it--somebody going around dressed up like Homey the Clown," says David Allison, 25, a friend who was also in the fifth grade at Murphy that year. "I want to say that he was a rapist or something."
"He was supposed to be driving around in a van," remembers another former classmate of mine, Bob Chang. "Kids were talking about it all the time. A kid in my church--he went to another school in Chicago further north--said that he saw Homey the Clown going by his school." Chang vividly recalls a witch-hunt mentality: "I remember that one day a bunch of kids from the neighborhood and me were like, 'We're going to catch this guy,' and we went walking the neighborhood looking for Homey."
The more people you ask--provided they're of a certain age--the more you hear the same things, with slight variations. Sometimes Homey is a kidnapper, other times a rapist; some remember Homey's sock, others remember his van. The van sometimes changes color, but white leads the other hues by a wide margin.
Just one detail is consistent: Homey was always nearby. It might have relieved those of us at Murphy to know that kids all over Chicago and in some suburbs thought the same thing. Tasara Redekopp, who was at Andrew Jackson Language Academy on the near west side, says her classmates were "so sure that he was real. That's why you had to be careful when you were waiting for your parents to pick you up." Alisa Wellek, who went to Rogers elementary in Rogers Park, recalls that "there wasn't that much communication between the Orthodox kids and the non-Orthodox kids, but I remember that the Orthodox kids were scared of white vans too. It was clear we'd both heard the same stories."
Folks who were grown-ups at the time also remember Homey. "A friend of mine was volunteering at Oscar Mayer elementary," says Murphy second-grade teacher Lee-Ann Meredith, "and a child saw a white van go by the school playground and started screaming, 'It's the clown, it's the clown!' And I understand that they took everyone back into the school and called the police." Even at the peak of supposed Homey sightings, however, few schools took action.
Homey didn't leave many traces in the media. The few clips I could find report sightings of a stubbornly mobile clown and the police force's increasing exasperation. On October 9, 1991, WFLD TV ran a 30-second news spot saying that police were treating Homey the Clown as an urban legend. Two days later the Trib ran an article headlined "Police taking clown sightings seriously." On the same day the Defender quoted a south-sider who insisted she'd seen Homey. On October 16 Oak Park's Wednesday Journal ran the headline "Police dismiss youth sighting of deviant clown as unfounded."
When I asked Patrick Camden, deputy director of news affairs for the Chicago Police Department, about Homey, he said, "You gonna run this thing into the ground? It was an urban legend!" There are no records of Homey the Clown, he says--though records are destroyed after seven years, max. No, he says, there's nobody around who remembers Homey the Clown ("That's ancient history!"). The Chicago police detective who worked on the case and was most frequently cited in the media, John Boyle, passed away in 2005.
Homey left town quietly, simply fizzling out of existence. He came and went with no harm done--unless, that is, you were a clown.
There's a term for the fear of clowns: coulrophobia. Just think of Batman's nemesis the Joker, created in 1940, and Pennywise the clown in Stephen King's novel It (it's probably no coincidence that the TV version came out in 1990, one year before the Homey sightings). Then there's serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who famously dressed as a clown. Older people invariably ask whether Homey had anything to do with Gacy, even though he was imprisoned years earlier.
One woman who's worked as a clown for more than 20 years went silent when I asked about Homey. "I don't want to talk about that," she finally said. "I think...I think that it's best forgotten."
Cleo the Clown is less grave, but he agrees that the Homey era was a hard time for people in his line of work. "I do remember kind of a rise, especially in black and Latino neighborhoods, of backlash or negative response," he says. "It was discrimination against clowns in general." People crossed the street when they saw him coming and called him names, including "Homey."
A south-sider whose real name is Tommy Marks and who'll be celebrating his 30th year as a clown this month, Cleo prides himself on performing in even the toughest neighborhoods. "I've done Christian parties, Muslim parties, I've done Hasidic Jew parties, I've got pictures with Buddhist Indians. Once I did a wake. I wasn't dancing on the coffin--I was there to celebrate the 'life that made its transition.'"
But Cleo found himself in a strange position in the early 90s: children seemed afraid of him in a way they hadn't been before. "I'd say, 'That look you're giving me, I probably remind you of another clown. But I'm not that clown.'" He says that just smiling a lot wasn't enough to win these kids over, so he told them they had nothing to fear--he was way tougher than Homey. "I used to say, 'Homey the Clown carries a sock, right? Well, I carry a Louisville Slugger!' I'd say, 'I'm not Homey, I'm Homey's older brother--I'm from the hood, Homey's not from the hood. How far do you think Homey would get on your block before people would take that sock and beat him with it?'"
The Homey scare and post-Homey persecution did bring some good, Cleo says. Now he stands up for clowns: "After Homey, I don't allow clown abuse."