About clowns in Wisconsin, where coulrophobia rules at a Manty B&B

MALACHIA DABECK PHOTO

MALACHIA DABECK PHOTO

What’s the difference between a clown and a mime? Not much these days because neither is talking, at least to me.

Widespread chatter – make that panic – about criminals dressed as clowns has brought a yanking of clown costumes and masks from Target stores, clown costume bans in school districts from California to Connecticut and angst for professional clowns.

A receptionist at Clowns of America International says all interview requests are being denied. Correspondence with Clown Camp in La Crosse (the nation’s oldest and biggest) went unacknowledged.

“Send out the clowns.” “No more clowning around.” “Goodbye class clowns.”

Some headlines write themselves, but for folks like Jim and Dawn Dabeck in Manitowoc, it’s pretty much business as usual. Or, unusual. The owners of The Mad Hatter, a costume and novelty shop, go one step beyond stocking clown outfits.

One year ago, they opened Dead by Dawn Dead and Breakfast, above their store. One of three guest rooms is the Coulrophobia, which means an extreme fear of clowns, “for all you clown lovers out there.”

“Some B&Bs claim to be haunted. We make sure things happen,” says Dawn, who operated haunted houses in Manitowoc County for 25 years. Why? “Halloween is in my blood, and I wanted to do something different.”

A stay begins with a 5 p.m. check-in and Unhappy Hour of beverages and nibbles. It ends with an elegant 10 a.m. breakfast of pastries, fruit, entree (example: gourmet breakfast pizza) and other fare from local businesses.

In between are “things that go bump in the night,” Dawn says, and it is her goal to make sure you don’t have a peaceful sleep.

What happens? She’s not talkin’ – and neither does she share or allow photos of the guest rooms. “We like to have something as a surprise for the customer,” she explains. That Coulrophobia room? The most you’ll learn, without paying to stay, is that “clowns are all over it and a little more evil than average. I don’t want to elaborate.”

Ask Manitowoc Mayor Justin Nickels about it. He spent the night in the clown room and says he was “truly frightened.” He also recommends the experience to others.

“Good job. You scared your mayor. And we all know it’s pretty hard to scare a politician,” Justin says, on the B&B’s website. He is 29 and was the nation’s youngest full-time mayor when elected in 2009.

Clowns were a room theme from the beginning because the Dabecks had the décor. “We always had a clown room in our haunted houses,” says Dawn, who recommends “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” as a cheesy movie rental.

“This is for people like us who love Halloween. You will not get a good night’s sleep, but we’ll make it worth the distress and anxiety you encounter in the dark,” the Dabecks promise, online.

Creepy? That’s the goal, at $299 per night for two people in a room. Other bedroom themes are about pirates and nightmares. After Halloween, “Crypt-mas” décor goes up, and “Alice in Wonderland” will be a springtime theme.

Overnight adventures can be customized. Murder mystery parties are possible, and an October wedding at the B&B is likely in 2017. Forget booking a room this month, and openings are sporadic after that. deadbydawn.com

The Mad Hatter, 901 S. Eighth St., Manitowoc, had only one clown costume left to rent for Halloween as I write this. “Cutesy, pink, blue and sparkly” is how Dawn described it. All clown costumes available for purchase were sold by early October. 920-683-3268

A 16-minute “Gags the Clown” film won Best Short Film and Best Character awards at this month’s Madtown Horror Film Festival in Madison. The mysterious, dismal-looking star has a haunting look, wears a dingy costume and carries black balloons.

The plot? From Facebook:

“In what has become a common headline across the globe, an unidentified individual has been dressing up like a clown and roaming the streets of Green Bay at night, capturing the attention of the entire city. Many write it off as a harmless prank, others aren’t so sure. But when a group of friends cross paths with the clown everyone calls Gags, his true intentions are revealed.”

Gags began gaining international attention in August. The clown has 55,765 “likes,” and counting, on Facebook. Identity is kept secret.

“Stay tuned for more scheduled screenings in and around the Green Bay area,” a Facebook post promised this month. “Gags isn’t going anywhere, Green Bay.”

Adam Krause, writer, producer and director of the Gags film, acknowledges on Facebook that the clown has acquired a “massive amount of attention.” His social media marketing campaign was to include four sightings of the clown, but the first – shots of Gags at the Walnut Street underpass – went viral hours after posting them Aug. 1.

Coulrophobia? It’s been around for quite a while.

Adam posts that the 1989 “Clownhouse” horror movie “did me in” and “somewhere along the line clowns went from being people that bring you goofy entertainment to people that bring you pure terror.” The filmmaker suggests they can exist as both. facebook.com/gagstheclown

Baraboo is home to the International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center, said to contain the largest amount of clown artifacts in the world. The building was damaged by heavy rains and flooding in summer. Unique historical posters and lithographs, costumes and props also were marred.

Director Greg DeSanto subsequently tried to raise $6,500 online and exceeded his goal, receiving $9,039 in donations. To add yours, check gofundme.com and search “save clown history.” theclownmuseum.com, 608-477-0353

Why Baraboo? “This community embraces their circus history and clowns are considered the ‘peg’ on which a circus is hung,” Greg says, online. The city was home to the original Ringling Brothers and Circus World Museum state historic site. circusworldbaraboo.org, 608-356-8341

Clown Camp in LaCrosse is June 11-16, and registration is open: regonline.com/clowncamp2017. Cost is $549, plus housing/meals, for early registrants. A one-day immersion (on June 10) is $150 and includes a session about therapeutic clowns, those who work in health care settings.

The camp is for people who want to learn about becoming a clown and clowns who want to improve or expand their skills. clowncamp.org, 608-385-1711

Kenny Ahern, camp co-director, posts this online:

“The clown arts are based on the purpose of serving to create joy… whether it be at a birthday party, county fair, theater, school, hospital, nursing home or a variety of other venues. The collective laugh of an audience is one of the most purest examples of the best in humanity and community.”

Driving to work in clown face, he acknowledges, may no longer be safe – at least for a while, but he remains optimistic:

“I choose to believe that if we remain committed to our art and serve our audiences with purpose, the haters will eventually see through the pop culture fog of misinformation… one laugh, one smile at a time. And for those who do not change their opinion? That is life. It is not failure to accept that you cannot please everyone.”