It’s hard to write about the current clown scare without resorting to cheap jokes about presidential politics. Yes, the race might be a squeaker, with one or the other winning by a plastic red nose — but enough about that. It’s time to get serious for a moment about the bozos wandering the streets, scaring our children.

Bad clowns, often as illusive as Big Foot sightings, are out in force, apparently, and that includes in Utah.

Last week, both an elementary and a middle school in Ogden locked their doors for a while after someone with a clown face made threats on social media. Parents in Orem needed calming reassurance after something similar. Police there tweeted, “Let’s have a serious talk about clowns.”

Indeed, to a lot of people, that sentence wasn’t the least bit ironic. Clowns are no laughing matter. With seemingly billions of sightings served worldwide, McDonald’s even announced that Ronald won’t be so visible for a while.

But how do we have a serious talk about clowns? That is, beyond the conventional wisdom never to smell a flower if one offers it because you’re liable to get squirted in the nose? Can you teach kids how to tell the good ones from the bad?

Psychologists are quick to blame Hollywood for recasting clowns from lovable circus people who make balloon animals into ax-wielding homicidal mutants, but that doesn’t quite explain the fears.

The clowns I’ve known have been fun-loving and friendly, but it’s easy to make the leap toward imagining their facades as cover for something else.

We’ve had this scary clown fixation for a long time, folks. Bad clowns have been with us at least since P.T. Barnum started shooting people from cannons, or as long as the French have had mimes. And people have long taken advantage of our fears.

I have found newspaper reports of people committing crimes dressed as clowns as far back as 1916. Counterfeit clowns have robbed banks and gone on murderous sprees. Police have even painted their faces and gone undercover to catch bad guys at Halloween parties, as they did in Jackson, Michigan, in 1992.

It’s not until 1981 that I found widespread reports of schoolchildren worried about killer clowns. That was the year a Kansas City mother said a yellow van pulled up to her girls after they left home in the morning and a clown inside pointed a knife at them. They ran screaming back home, but soon children everywhere were seeing clowns with sharp objects. Reports came by the dozens in Kansas and Missouri, spreading quickly to New England and Pittsburgh.

An exasperated police sergeant in Kansas City told reporters, “We cannot ignore any reports that we get … but I cannot believe that there can be that many clowns in Kansas City with yellow vans.”

The response I’m itching to make, of course, is that he might be surprised how many clowns you can stuff in a van. But jokes fall flat when you’re faced with a panic-stricken child. I doubt many parents are laughing at the current reports.

Today, of course, we have social media to fan the flames. As I write this, police in England, New Zealand and Australia are following up on menacing clown sightings that mimic those in Ogden, Orem and elsewhere.

We can’t afford to brush them off as childish fantasy. Even false reports quickly can turn into copycat opportunities. We have enough real examples of crimes against children that don’t involve face paint.

You could tell kids to run from clowns who aren’t part of a circus or a party, but how long until an innocent, legitimate clown gets attacked while en route to one of those things? The majority of people in clown costumes are serious performers trying to make people happy.

Amid all the confusion, it would be nice to understand our underlying fears.

Last week, the New York Post quoted a psychology instructor saying clowns can be scary because many people react to the warped humanity of something that seems “so close to being human but just a shade off.”

Interesting theory, but it brings us right back to the presidential race again.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.