Back in 2014, a video titled “Wrinkles The Clown Caught on CCTV” surfaced online showing what appeared to be security cam footage of a man in a clown suit and mask crawling out from underneath a little girl’s bed. The clown places a stuffed animal next to the girl, spots the camera in the corner of the room, and presumably destroys it.
The video could’ve fallen into the canon of digital folklore, something you’d see on horror-story forum Creepypasta and wonder what if?
However, not too long after the video got some online buzz, stickers around Southwest Florida began popping up with a phone number and picture of that same clown, with his saggy skin, droopy red mouth, disheveled mop, and dead black eyes. As it turned out, Wrinkles the Clown was a boogeyman for hire. Parents could call the number and put a scare hit out on their unruly kids. If you called the number, you were likely met with a voicemail greeting of a gruff-sounding man with a thick Rhode Island accent—or you might get Wrinkles himself.
The Wrinkles we thought we knew
Local news reports immediately picked up on the story. An NBC affiliate ran an interview with Wrinkles mingling with kids on Halloween. The YouTube account HvUseen Wrinkles started posting sightings of him scaring kids during a family card game or just standing and waving on the side of the road.
But the story reached national attention when the Washington Post published an interview with Wrinkles, diving deeper into his backstory. He declined to give his real identity but said he was a 65-year-old military veteran who moved to Florida from Rhode Island:
After his arrival, he noticed that other people his age were playing golf and shuffleboard and hanging out at country clubs, but Wrinkles said being a boring retiree just wasn’t him. Instead, he ordered a clown mask online, created some business cards and stickers advertising his phone number and began to indulge in his life-long appreciation for clowning.
Suddenly, Wrinkles went from a local hero (or villain depending on how you see him) to a national star. He was being talked about on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and The Late Late Show with James Corden. He was the subject of a New Yorker cartoon, not to mention dozens of write-ups and additional interviews from such major outlets as GQ and the Telegraph.
Everyone wanted to know: Who is Wrinkles?
Well, filmmaker Michael Beach Nichols finally has the answer—and it’s way more bizarre than you think.
Nichols’s new documentary Wrinkles the Clown unravels the mystery of the man behind the mask, pulling in interviews with the kids and parents who’ve called Wrinkles and a sit-down with the man himself—or so we’re led to believe.
Throughout the doc, we don’t actually see Wrinkles’s face, but we do hear his distinctive voice. We peek into his life, living in his trailer, eating frozen dinners, going to strip clubs. These glimpses seem to match the description that the media ran with.
Stop reading here if you don’t want to know more.
The Wrinkles we didn’t know
But, as we discover halfway through the doc, that isn’t Wrinkles. It’s an actor hired to portray Wrinkles for the documentary.
The real Wrinkles appears after this twist to admit, for the first time, that it was all a hoax. Not just the videos—Wrinkles’s whole identity. He’s not a 65-year-old retired military vet. Parents have certainly called him, but he’s never actually accepted a job to scare their kids in person.
Wrinkles the Clown is essentially a nearly four-year social experiment.
“One of many hesitations for him in terms of agreeing to do this was, he definitely felt that if by revealing that this clown wasn’t going out and scaring children, why would people still want to reach out to him?” Nichols says. “He felt maybe we do a mockumentary and make it as if he really was scaring kids. Since we’re documentary filmmakers, it wasn’t nearly as interesting to do that.”
But Nichols isn’t the first one to want to do a documentary on Wrinkles.
In 2016, filmmaker Cary Longchamps started a Kickstarter campaign to “go beyond the shallow pool of info that the media has gathered and go deep, really deep.” That campaign was unsuccessful, raising just shy of $4,000 out of its $45,000 goal. Reportedly, one of Wrinkles’s videos was shot at Longchamps’s duplex in Naples, Florida (the epicenter of Wrinkles’ alleged activities), leading many to believe that he, in fact, is Wrinkles. Neither Longchamps’s nor Nichols’s reporting confirms this.
But what’s evident in Wrinkles the Clown is that it doesn’t really matter who’s behind the mask. Wrinkles is an idea for the public to latch on to.
Now things get weird and meta
To tell that story, Nichols created a narrative arc that first builds on the myth of Wrinkles based on how kids and the media viewed him—scenes of kidnapping kids, painting his walls with their blood, and so forth—with the actor portraying Wrinkles anchoring the hoax.
Then Nichols completely deconstructs that same myth showing how the real man behind Wrinkles orchestrated the events. The video from the family game night? Friends of his he directed. The 2014 video with the little girl in her room that started it all? Same thing.
“This was certainly the most constructed film that I’ve ever made,” Nichols says.
But by taking such a structured approach instead the usual vérité method of documentary films, Nichols was able to upend Wrinkles’s narrative to better illustrate one of the main themes of the film: how susceptible we are to internet hoaxes—and how easy they are to construct.
The truth of fake news
Earlier this year, the “Momo Challenge” swept the internet with the image of a bug-eyed, bird-like woman who allegedly made kids commit suicide. The photo in question was actually a bust called “Mother Bird” that the artist Keisuke Aisawa had made years ago. The myth of Slenderman, an abnormally tall and svelte demon who kidnaps kids, was born on Creepypasta but was dragged into the real world in 2014 when two Wisconsin girls tried to stab their friend to death as a sacrifice to Slenderman. Even Wrinkles inspired a string of clown-related assaults and threats that mainly swept Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia in 2016—copycats that, at times, were a little hard to write off as harmless pranksters.
But it’s not just impressionable children who can’t decipher what’s real and what’s not. What are fake news and deep fakes if not Momo, Slenderman, or Wrinkles for adults?
Folklore and myths are engrained in our culture. However, social media has made it far easier to disseminate false stories, photos, and videos that look more and more plausible as technology advances. The line between fact and fiction is rapidly being erased, with increasingly alarming results, which is something that Wrinkles admits in the doc that he’s had to contend with. Perhaps it’s why he agreed to sit down with Nichols, a sort of swan song to a character that has come to represent, in part, a larger, more ominous side of the “harmless” internet hoax.
“It definitely portends a much darker future,” Nichols says. “I think wars could be started because of the types of misinformation being spread. On the one hand, [Wrinkles] is sort of a funny thing that happened. But on the other hand, there are ramifications to this type of thing that could have really deadly consequences.”