Arriving home from work one day, a mother is greeted by her son who's been anxiously waiting to tell her about the clowns he heard whispering in the woods near their apartment complex. Initially she assumes his mind is running wild in the summer heat, until her eldest son confirms the report, saying he heard chains rattling and banging on the front door.

Unfortunately, this isn't an installment of Are Your Afraid of the Dark? but part of our new reality, as creepy clown sightings are cropping up across the country without explanation. On August 21st, reports of clown sightings surfaced near the Fleetwood Manor apartment complex in Greenville County, South Carolina. Officials took the strange reports seriously but were unable to uncover any real evidence or suspicious persons. The reports stretched beyond children hearing noises and seeing people with clown face paint: One resident said she saw a clown with a blinking nose standing beside a dumpster at 2:30 a.m. Other children came forward claiming clowns attempted to lure them into the woods with money and that the clowns "live in a house by a pond deep in the woods." After hearing gunshots, police learned two residents fired in the direction of the wooded area where the sightings had supposedly taken place. A week later, more reports surfaced of clowns simply staring at Greenville residents near laundromats and, again, next to the woods.

Yet still, police couldn't locate a single clown to question, leaving people to wonder whether this was a hoax, a marketing ploy, or simply child's play.

But if it is all an elaborate ruse, roughly a dozen other cities are in on it – and some officials are worried there will be a violent end to the clown sightings. And in the five weeks since clowns popped up in Greenville, the pandemic has spread.

Last week, in what quickly became a viral Facebook post, a video of a clown lurking in the brush along a dirt road was taken by a person named Caden Parmelee in Marion County, Florida. The car Parmelee was in paused to film a person with white, sinister face paint, but the video cuts out as the clown begins to move and someone in the car is cut off saying "Let's get the hell out of…" We can assume the final word of that was "here," based on Parmelee's comment to police that he wasn't looking to die that day. Another Florida resident, Kelly Reynolds of Palm Bay, took up running last weekend when she saw two clowns while she was walking her dog. Reynolds reported to Florida Today, "I never run but I turned and ran back to my home as fast as I can." Florida, a hotbed for weird shit, also had reports of creepy clown sightings in Pensacola and Gainesville.

The clowns crept up into North Carolina, littering the state with the grim face paint and costumes. A machete-wielding clown tried to lure a woman into a wooded area in Forsyth County. Winston-Salem increased police presence in certain areas after two children claimed they were offered candy by a clown if they'd follow it into the woods. In both Henrico and Augusta counties, parents and their children reported clowns "leering" at them from cars or on the edge of a forest. While the Augusta clown may still be wandering the forest, a local woman, Holly Brown, reported that the creepy clown was, in fact, her son Angus, a 12-year-old with autism, who donned his Halloween costume a month early. She stated her son was simply excited about the holiday and meant no harm. Given the clown-hysteria, he will only wear the costume on October 31st.

Pennsylvania, too, is rife with creepy clown reports. In Pottsville, there were reports of two people wearing "clown-like clothes," driving around in a pickup truck scaring teens and children. In Ebensburg, a woman caught a peeping-Tom clown peering through her window. Most recently, York College sent a safety alert out to the campus – a reaction deemed necessary after receiving eight different clown reports since September 24th. More sightings have been reported in Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin and, most recently, New York State.

Police have begun arresting people dressed as clowns on various charges. In Alabama, seven people are facing felonies for making a terrorist threat, while two more juveniles face lesser charges. In Middlesboro, Kentucky, a 20-year-old man was arrested for wearing a clown costume while hiding in a ditch. In Virginia, two teens were taken into custody for donning clown costumes and chasing children. And in recent days, the list has been growing.

As campus safety officials in Pennsylvania pointed out in their notice, the "creepy clown" situation is becoming a national phenomena. Unfortunately, the situation is nothing new. In 1981, "sinister" clowns were seen in Boston and neighboring towns throughout New England. The clowns, who harassed small children, were never seen by adults. They would coax children into vans with candy, usually driving alongside children walking down the street or in front of schools. The Phantom Clowns, as they were dubbed by cryptozoologist Loren Coleman given their allusive nature, spread to Kansas City, Denver, Omaha, and Pennsylvania. Since the 1980s, clowns have made appearances across the country, usually in the weeks and months leading up to Halloween. 

Coleman's phantom clown theory is rooted in the "primal dread that so many children experience in their presence." The first notable instance of a creepy clown is when serial killer John Wayne Gacy was captured in 1979. His alter ego Pogo the Clown frequented children's parties, so his capture drew a connection between a killer and a clown. Three years later came Poltergeist, in which a sinister clown doll lives underneath the bed. Stephen King doubled down and only increased the public's fear of clowns – his 1987 novel It, featuring Pennywise the clown, was made into a horrifying film in 1990. (People still love to fear clowns – Poltergeist was rebooted last year, and a remake of It is set to arrive next fall.)

Yet despite the recent arrests – and despite some state laws banning anyone over the age of 16 from wearing a mask or hood with the intent of intimidation or harassment – a solution to the phantom clown resurgence remains unknown. But more than stopping the phenomena, officials are concerned with the terrified people who may have a conceal-carry permit for a gun, or for vigilantes actively seeking to end the clown problem on their own. Child psychiatrist Dr. Steven Schlozman of Harvard University spoke to the New York Times about the power this problem has to "grab you emotionally before it grabs you cognitively." It's what caused videos and claims of clowns to go viral – whether it's real or a hoax – and what leads to the horrifying outcomes our fears bring to pass.

What the country is facing now is not the fear of clowns, but the aftermath that's likely to ensue. In Dr. Schlozman's view, "It never ends well."