Send in the clowns: UMass clown sighting one in series of hoaxes

BY TESSA SCHWARZ '17

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst is the latest in a series of colleges and communities to play host to clown sightings.

On Monday night, an unverified Twitter account, @BestClownWatch, tweeted that a clown had been spotted on the southwest portion of UMass’s campus. “CS: Umass Amherst, MA Southwest area Red nose, white face, black clothes,” the account wrote.

Though these claims were unsubstantiated, they quickly spread throughout the campus, especially following an earlier reported clown sighting at Merrimack College in North Andover, in which a dormitory was evacuated and students were ordered to shelter in place, according to the Amherst Wire. At UMass, however, no such order was issued, and some students began to search the campus for the clown. 

One Twitter user, @chris_tfb, wrote, “THERES [sic] A HUGE A-- MOB OF PEOPLE WITH WEAPONS HUNTING DOWN A CLOWN SIGHTED AT UMASS AMHERST. ITS F---ING LIT.” He shared a video of students appearing to pour out of a college building late at night.

UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski told the Amherst Wire that there had been no reports of clowns on campus, and that if there had been, students would have received an alert.

The first clown sighting in this recent spree took place in Greenville County, South Carolina. An Aug. 21 incident report from the Greenville County Sheriff’s Department detailed what happened when officers arrived on the scene.

“I was conducting a follow up investigation in reference to residents making several reports of a suspicious character, dressed in circus clown attire and white face paint, enticing kids to follow him/her into the woods,” the report reads. 

According to the report, a resident stated that on the night of Aug. 19, her son “approached her and stated that he [had] seen clowns in the woods whispering and making strange noises. [The resident] advised that she went over to the area that her son mentioned and observed several clowns in the woods flashing green laser lights, then ran away into the woods. Her eldest son ... stated that he heard chains and banging on the front door of the residence on [Aug. 20] approximately 2030 hours.”

After this first report was filed, numerous other children from the apartment complex came forward and shared similar reports. Police continued to investigate.

Following the South Carolina sightings, a rash of alleged clown sightings began to spring up throughout the United States. In the subsequent month, “creepy clowns” have been reported in at least six states, including Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, according to the New York Times. 

Many of these reports have been determined by police to be pranks or hoaxes, but some are still curious about why the clowns have gripped the public consciousness so tightly and why so many have continued to perpetuate the hoax.

“Since the event appears to be difficult to verify, the claim that one has had such an encounter is easier to make and relatively free from the risk of being called out as a fraud,” Jason D. Seacat, an associate professor of psychology at Western New England University, told the New York Times. “So, low risk of being called out for lying and the benefit of positive attention for reporting such a claim may motivate some people to lie.”

Fear of clowns, known as coulrophobia, is fairly widespread. According to a 2014 poll by Rasmussen Reports, 12 percent of Americans report a fear of clowns, with an additional 43 percent stating that they dislike them. Additionally, the image of the scary clown began to come into vogue in the 1980s, following the arrest of John Wayne Gacy in 1978 and the release of Stephen King’s popular novel “It” in 1986.

Shortly after the alleged Merrimack and UMass sightings, the popular anonymous messaging app Yik Yak changed its “refresh” icon to an image of its yak mascot wearing clown makeup. While some Yakkers expressed amusement, others were less thrilled. One poster on UMass’s Yik Yak, AnonymousPurpleCat, wrote on Wednesday, “Why the f--- had [sic] the reload symbol on this app been changed to a clown yak I don’t find this the least bit funny.” Another UMass Yakker, TonyPepperoni, responded, “I find it funny you don’t find it funny.”

Dean of Students Marcella Runell Hall emailed students Wednesday afternoon in response to the clown rumors. “It has come to my attention that there is a rumor going around regarding disturbing clown sightings at UMass and other campuses,” wrote Runell Hall. “The most recent news stories have proven this was a hoax.”

Despite her statement that the recent clown sightings have been hoaxes, Runell Hall still advised caution. “Please remember to be safe and aware of your surroundings, on or off campus,” she wrote. “Try to find someone to walk with, and call Campus Police if you feel unsafe.”

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