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Is your child misbehaving? Well, if you’re a demented mother and father interested in traumatizing your little one for years to come, you can follow in the footsteps of a shocking number of other American parents and dial 407-734-0254—the phone number for Wrinkles the Clown, a Naples, Florida, creep who, for a small cash fee, will lurk around your kid until they get the message and straighten themselves out.

This is both not a joke and a hilarious gag, as detailed by Wrinkles the Clown (in theaters Oct. 4). Michael Beach Nichols’ simultaneously spooky and amusing documentary concerns the notorious circus weirdo, who became an internet sensation in 2015—and inspired a rash of nationwide copycat dangerous-clown sightings in 2016—thanks to a series of online videos (beginning with this one) and stickers featuring his name, face and phone number that he posted around his hometown. In an age of viral horror fads (Slenderman, Momo, etc.), Wrinkles, bolstered by local news coverage and, then, a 2015 story in The Washington Post, was a standout star, not least because you could actually call him and either leave a voicemail or, if you were lucky, chat with the gruff, curt clown himself.

One look at Wrinkles is enough to make one understand his menacing appeal. Dressed in a red-and-white polka-dotted suit (with black gloves and boots), he wears a mask with an aged complexion, saggy black eye-socket holes, an unsmiling red mouth, and a receding hairline of wavy white tufts. He looks melted and demented, and in keeping with the Post’s report that he was played by a retired 65-year-old military vet, Nichols’ documentary reveals the man beneath the mask to be an older white male with a big bushy beard who lives in a cramped RV and doesn’t care much for kids. Whether cooking fish at remote lakes, sitting in hotel rooms in dirty undershirts, or frequenting strip clubs when he has the funds, this dingy Southern figure—who demands that his face be obscured at all times on-screen, lest his identity become public knowledge—comes across as a hybrid of Michael Myers and The Devil’s Rejects’ Captain Spaulding.

Wrinkles was an instant hit with the adolescent online set, who promptly began recording themselves phoning and texting him—an act that folklorist Trevor J. Blank claims, persuasively, is a rite of passage of sorts, and part of a contemporary ritual of helping create and spread modern myths. Unlike other boogeymen, Wrinkles the Clown was just a phone call away! Which, as plentiful video clips prove, meant that kids could freak out over the fact that someone was on the other end of the line. It also meant they could interact with him by leaving messages of love and support, or crazy vitriol, as evidenced by numerous voicemail missives in which young and old alike threaten Wrinkles with unholy torture and murder.

Moreover, as previously noted, it afforded parents an opportunity to psychologically abuse their sons and daughters by ringing him up and asking him to visit their offspring—all as their kids shrieked and wailed in the background. Wrinkles the Clown is, on the one hand, a portrait of how a few images and suggestions can take on an insane life of their own, eliciting responses across the spectrum. Those include adoration, as Nichols profiles two boys and a girl whose fondness for Wrinkles has motivated them to embark on their own dreadful-clown paths (much to their parents’ befuddlement). And sometimes, they involve natural anxiety and hostility, what with Wrinkles’ John Wayne Gacy-reminiscent behavior proving tailor-made to send adults, the media, and law enforcement into a frenzied panic.

In its most intriguing segment, Wrinkles the Clown addresses the underlying attraction of scary clowns, which from serial killer Gacy to the Joker to It’s Pennywise have exhibited a powerful pull on the national consciousness. Author Benjamin Radford shrewdly explains the historical roots of nasty clowns (they date back to Punch and Judy, he says), and in doing so, pinpoints how they function as perversions of something seemingly safe, happy and fun. They’re the rotten and deviant reality lurking beneath the goofy, smiling façade. And in the case of Wrinkles, they’re also creatures that expose the ugliness of others, even as Wrinkles himself maintains his anonymity, the better to let others use their imaginations to flesh out details about his backstory, nature and motivations.

Wrinkles the Clown complements its cornucopia of non-fiction material (online videos, interviews with children) with plentiful scenes of Wrinkles both in and out of his costume, going about his daily toil. Director Nichols derives considerable humor from these latter sequences, including images of Wrinkles wandering streets and fields with a little girl in hand (replete with a subtle Terrence Malick shout-out!), and also from canny juxtapositions of the horrific and the banal. That comedic element is key to the film, which soon delivers a twist—not to be spoiled here—that casts its entire portrait in a different light, causing viewers to reassess not only what they’ve just seen, but also their assumptions about cinematic and internet truth circa 2019.

Without giving away its central surprise, Wrinkles the Clown eventually transforms into an extension of Wrinkles’ performance-art pranksterism. In doing so, it illustrates how the internet blurs the line between the real and the phony in novel, collaborative ways; how we rely on stereotypes (and archetypes) to make sense of the seemingly irrational; and how hive-mind fantasies are sometimes more compelling, and contagious, than legends created by a single author. Everyone knows, deep down, that Wrinkles is merely a weird guy in a mask trying to unnerve people through ominous short videos, and not some supernatural fiend slaughtering the innocent in his decrepit mobile home in the wilds of Florida. And yet his elevation to national celebrity, however brief, also implies that there’s a strange, hungry desire to pretend that he’s legitimate, especially when the internet makes it easier than ever to do so.

Most of all, though, Wrinkles is proof that—for reasons sincere and ironic, and because they simply find them pleasurable, funny and terrifying in alternating measure—people just can’t resist a good scary story.

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