UMass creepy clown hoax one of many in nation

  • Warnings of “creepy clowns” have turned out to be hoaxes. THINKSTOCK

@cmlindahl
Published: 10/5/2016 9:36:51 PM

They’re reportedly lurking behind headstones, walking amid the towering Southwest dormitories in Amherst and even making a hit list. In these and most other cases around the country, warnings of so-called “creepy clowns” have turned out to be just a hoax.

Reacting to social media chatter, dozens of students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Monday night took to the concourse and streets around the Southwest Residential Area with baseball bats, Swiffer mops and hockey sticks to find and fight off a clown that meant to do harm.

But their hunt proved fruitless.

“We have no confirmed sightings of concerning clowns,” UMass spokesman Edward F. Blaguszewski said Wednesday. “There were a number of rumors.”

Social media jesters started a similar scare Monday at Merrimack College in North Andover. An armed man dressed in a clown suit was rumored to have been hiding in a dormitory, prompting a shelter-in-place order and a search mission by four law enforcement agencies.

“The Andover, North Andover and state police responded in force, and joined Merrimack College officers in this search, which found no suspicious person or activity, and no weapon,” Merrimack President Christopher E. Hopey said in a statement.

“We now know this was a hoax perpetrated on social media, not just on our campus but on several others throughout New England last night — a hoax fed by a hysteria that has, by media accounts, now affected communities in 26 states.”

Clown terror

That nationwide panic is believed to have been started with a single incident in South Carolina at the end of August. There, several residents at an apartment complex reported that people in clown makeup had been terrorizing people, including children, who were said to have been offered money by the clowns to follow the painted men into the woods, according to the New York Times.

While many of the dozens of reported incidents across the country have proven to be false, some would-be jokesters are facing legal consequences for their actions.

In Phoenix, two 17-year-olds are facing charges after allegedly robbing a Taco Bell and a Domino’s Pizza. A 13-year-old middle school student in Texas was charged this week with making a terroristic threat after posting a purported clown’s hit list. And several Connecticut teenagers were arrested Wednesday on charges of making threats after they allegedly posted clown hoaxes on Instagram that led to extra security at several school districts.

Sociologists say the panic over clowns, which may seem silly from a distance, is actually a new twist on a phenomenon as old as witch hunts.

“There is a sense that there is some evil force out there that we have to organize together to attack,” said Dustin Kidd, a sociologist and pop culture expert at Temple University in Philadelphia. “If anything, it’s just distracting us from the real ordinary threats that we face in our everyday lives.”

Mob mentality

Chris Sewell, a UMass student who posted a video on Twitter of the mob there, seemed to agree that the Southwest gathering was motivated by group-think.

“My understanding of the situation was it was based on mob mentality, excitement, and hype for a nationwide event,” he said in an email. “Even if there was no clown on campus and it was all a hoax, people were just excited to be a part of it.”

UMass sophomore Brian Gendron said he first got word of the false clown news when he saw one of his friends retweet the original clown-sighting tweet. Following that, he ran into his friend’s room down the hall of his Southwest dorm.

“There had to be 12 to 15 kids in there — ‘Oh there’s a clown?’ Where is it?’” he recalled on campus Wednesday.

Gendron said he’s not concerned about any real malicious clowns. But he has noticed that the hysteria has had some unexpected consequences. “It’s definitely bringing everyone together,” he said.

Less than rational

Rich Hanley, a journalism professor and social media expert at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, which also had a clown scare this week, said the fear is easily spread on social media.

Posts on Twitter, Instagram and other sites, he said, often contain videos, images and statements that lack any context, factual filters or important details that would be in an actual news report. In a closed social situation, such as a school or university campus, that can easily lead to a less than rational response, he said.

Hanley compared the situation to a “Twilight Zone” episode titled “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” in which “the monsters were all in people’s heads,” he said. “People respond, looking for pitchforks to get the monsters.”

Because of that type of attention from the community, Hanley said, law enforcement must take the issue seriously.

“I don’t think they have a choice,” he said. He compared it to the practice known as “swatting,” in which someone calls 911 to report that a person is being held hostage at an address. Even though it’s a hoax, police, sometimes including SWAT teams, respond in force.

Locally, such reported clown sightings have not yet tied up police resources.

Blaguszewski said he does not believe there was any UMass Police involvement in Monday’s gathering.

Amherst Police Capt. Ronald Young said the town department has not received any calls this year about creepy clowns, though they are aware of the incident Monday.

Young said if residents do see something or someone suspicious, whether dressed in makeup or not, they should be observant and vigilant.

“Our concern is always with people’s safety,” he said. “We would encourage people to just be aware of their surroundings — not dissimilar to advice we would give to people in other situations.”

Northampton police have received a report of only one clown-related incident in recent months, though Capt. John Cartledge says it doesn’t appear to be tied to the national phenomenon.

A resident early Wednesday morning received a video via text message showing a clown throwing a pie at a car, he said.

“He thought it was a prank until he got home and found that the pie was on his car,” Cartledge said. The perpetrator and the victim “are familiar with each other … there was no violence or any threat to the public.”

Smith College has not received any reports of clowns on its campus, according to spokeswoman Stacey Schmeidel.

Feeling safe

Gendron, the UMass student, said he’s not afraid of malicious clowns invading his campus.

And while the recent phenomenon of reported clown sightings has gripped many in the country, there have been no laws passed specifically targeting clown activity.

But one Erie, Pennsylvania, mother wants to change that.

Krystal Torok planned to ask the City Council in her community Wednesday to ban clown costumes on Halloween given the recent tie between clowns and evil intent, according to GoErie.com.

Such an action has not been proposed to Northampton city councilors.

“There’s currently nothing pending relative to clown masks, or any other masks or any other garb,” City Council President William H. Dwight said. “Personally, I would not be inclined to favor that as a law, if it were up to me.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.




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