A sinister clown has begun appearing around Portsmouth, scaring children and leading to demands that police take action.

The clown stands silently in local shops wearing a creepy mask and suit, unnerving shoppers and families. He has also been seen walking around town holding a balloon and cycling along, speaking in a weird voice. Locals took to social media to express their fear at sighting the clown.

One tweeted: "as if portsmouth wasn't bad enough already there's now a clown wandering round and he's bloody scary?"

Another wrote: "If you are in #Portsmouth there's a man in a v scary clown mask following people around town omg"

On being told the clown had been cycling around scaring kids on ewrote on Facebook: "Next time call the police. He is disturbing people and upsetting them."

People are dressing up as clowns and walking around in the middle of the night in California. Twitter

One local came up with what sounded the perfect solution: " I see only one solution. Batman."

However the Portsmouth News has now revealed that the sinister figure is actually a teenage schoolboy. Andrea Hutchinson, manageress of Preloved Portsmouth, told the newspaper: "He comes in once or twice a week. He just likes to come in and stand there doing his tricks. He also goes around the pubs doing magic tricks and he has a wallet which he sets on fire. He is harmless. I can understand people being frightened though. But he's just a kid."

Portsmouth isn't the first community to be terrorised by clowns recently. Three people were attacked by a knife-wielding clown in the small French town of Douai and people in California's San Joaquin Valley reported being chased by clowns armed with knives and even guns.

Coulrophobia - the fear of clowns - is surprisingly common, though its origins are far from clear. Famous celebrities and characters to suffer from the condition include Kramer from Seinfeld and Johnny Depp, who once told reporters: "I guess I am afraid of them because it's impossible – thanks to their painted-on smiles – to distinguish if they are happy or if they're about to bite your face off."