PARIS - A wave of panic sparked by evil clowns stalking French towns has spread to the south of France where police on Saturday night arrested 14 teenagers dressed as the pranksters, carrying pistols, knives and baseball bats.
A police source said Sunday the group of teens were arrested in the parking lot of a high school in the Mediterranean port town of Agde, as several other complaints poured in about "armed clowns" in the region over the weekend.
In the nearby city of Montpellier a man disguised as a clown was arrested after beating up a pedestrian with an iron bar, while three motorists in different towns complained about "scary clowns" threatening them.
The phenomenon of dressing up as an evil clown and terrifying passers-by - a trend which has also been seen in the United States and Britain - cropped up in the north of France in early October.
In the northern French town of Bethune, a 19-year-old received a six-month suspended jail term Monday for threatening passers-by while dressed as a clown.
These "clowns" have been "mostly spotted outside schools, but also on public roads, in bushes, in a square. Their targets are often young children or teenagers, but also adults," a police source in northern France told AFP.
Theories abound as to the origin of the trend in a country where the American fear-fest Halloween has yet to take hold.
The suggestions include a challenge launched on social networks, a video published on YouTube showing a terrifying clown pranking people - which has had some 31 million views - or even a recent episode of the popular TV series American Horror Story featuring Twisty the killer clown.
After a rumour a clown was stalking the eastern French town of Mulhouse, five teenagers on Wednesday armed themselves with a baseball bat, a teargas canister, a hammer and a truncheon to mete out vigilante justice to the not-so-funny pranksters.
They were arrested and later released, but the incident prompted the national police to step in to quell the hysteria.
"Since mid-October, a rumour inspired by videos published on the Internet, is worrying the population about the presence of threatening and aggressive clowns in France," the national police said in a statement this week.
It cautioned that "despite numerous reports made to police, there have been only a few sightings of people dressed as clowns having fun scaring passers-by." "Symptomatic of the impact of the Internet, this phenomenon can lead to damaging individual acts and disturbances to public order," it said.
Whether brandishing a rubber chicken at a children's party or starring as the evil protagonist in a horror film, clowns have long had the ability to both entertain and terrify.
Infamous creepy clowns include notorious American serial killer and rapist John Wayne Gacy - who would dress up as Pogo the clown - to the fictitious Pennywise in Stephen King's movie "It".
The fear of clowns is known as coulrophobia.