By Alison Izzi
Stephen King gave clowns a bad name back in 1986 when he released his book It. Prior to then, clowns were the friendly circus entertainers dressed in polka-dotted bodysuits, a red nose and water-shooting boutonnieres.
The evil-clown hype has now returned and somehow the small campus Springfield College became a valve in the national heart of it all on Monday night.
Since mid-August, creepy clowns have supposedly been provoking mayhem in the eastern U.S. with social media flooded with pictures and videos of alleged sightings causing mass hysteria. The oversized-feet-bearing jesters are reported to have been trying to lure children into forests with money, knocking on car windows, staring into houses and chasing people in and out of vehicles down the road.
At least 100 Springfield College students left their dorms and made a beeline for International Hall, some rolling in by car, after word spread through social media and text messaging that one of the menacing buffoons was stalking behind the dormitory. Students came flying out with baseball bats and lacrosse sticks ready for some late night “clown hunting.”
In the following days rumors flew through campus, speculating about arrests. With Western New England University around the corner, many students remained convinced that a clown had wandered through the campus grounds. And a poorly photoshopped Snapchat circulated through peoples’ social media feeds.
“When I pulled out my iPad I was like ‘oh!’, and when you do a Google search, the top image when you search if you do ‘scary clown full body’ it’s that picture,” said Director of Student Affairs Dr. Shannon Finning, weighing in on what her Monday night consisted of, and the photograph.
Though the Department of Public Safety, in collaboration with Finning, had issued an email to students claiming the clown reports to be “unfounded”, the buzz was still hot with whispers of conspiracy and fear.
On Tuesday afternoon, Steve Roulier sat down and expressed with certainty on behalf of Public Safety and Chief Karen Leary that no clown was seen on campus and in fact, the entire fiasco had stemmed from a Twitter hoax.
“We’re hearing that any reports [that were] coming to Public Safety were students or other people concerned that they’re hearing or seeing things on Twitter,” stated Roulier. “There has been no one coming to Public Safety reporting that they’ve actually witnessed something on our campus.” The recently developed Twitter page “Clown Watch” allows users to direct message a location of a clown sighting, where the page operator then tweets out the locations. Monday night, Springfield College was one of those locations. The bottom line? There was no clown on the Springfield College campus, however Roulier did mention a few notes that came from city police.
“Springfield police reported that they had several reports of clowns in the city. The only one, though, close to Springfield College was two blocks away on Walnut Street,” said Roulier. He expressed that Public Safety did their due diligence both by sweeping behind International Hall along with the rest of campus, and by remaining updated by city police of their reports in case a situation did arise.
Other gossip spreading across campus was that a few dorms were on lockdown and arrest was made on SC grounds and again at WNEU. Though Chief Leary couldn’t be reached, Roulier testified that as far as at SC, no dorms were on lockdowns, and no arrests were made in regards to a clown simply because there was no clown. If any other arrests had been made outside of the clown chaos, he was not sure.
Brian Zelasko, the Director for Communications and Media at WNEU, contacted public safety and reported back to The Springfield Student that between 11 p.m. and 12 a.m. Monday night, reports had been received about a tweet claiming a clown on campus, or reports that someone heard that someone was saying there was. All reports were second or third hand information, no one was arrested and there wasn’t any verification of a clown actually being on their campus. Their campus was apparently targeted by the same Twitter hoax as SC.
Hoax or not, however, Springfield students were more than ready, and eager, to ensue on the great Bozo chase. Sporting equipment in hand, mob mentality set in as everyone wanted to find the perpetrator.
“We didn’t really think much of it until we looked out our window and saw a mob of students running over to Inty. I personally thought it was fake until some people claimed to have seen it,” said Matthew Fraioli, a resident of Alumni Hall. “My friend Nick and I looked at [each other] and immediately threw our shoes on and ran to Inty with everyone else.”
Many students had the same rush as Snapchat videos and Twitter posts showed a large mass running to the dorm with many people screaming vulgarities at the alleged jester and even laughing.
“The atmosphere was amazing. It was around 10:30 at night and everyone was so hyped to see this clown and run it off campus,” said Fraioli, though perhaps some of the lightheartedness Roulier even noticed came from the fact that a number of students never expected to run into a clown. Fraioli continued, “If we ran into a clown I honestly don’t know what would have happened. I personally would have been shocked to actually have seen one.”
In terms of his fellow students, though, Fraioli was more than fascinated. “I was impressed how fast 400 of our students assembled to go catch a clown.” Although Fraioli’s number may have been a bit high, Finning agreed, also noting the danger that came with this.
“I also want to make sure that we’re not having students out thinking that they’re gonna protect the campus and inadvertently hurt themselves or somebody else,” she said.
The mob that developed on campus is just a small and local example of the paranoia that is spreading across America. Though many of the reports in the 28 states that have record of them are unfounded, the fear of the unknown has people on edge. Is it all in fact a hoax? Is there something to be said for the fact that more citizens making false claims have been arrested than actual clowns?
Also on Monday night, other New England colleges had similar events when the “Clown Watch” page tweeted their campus locations as a spot for sightings. Sacred Heart University, Quinnipiac University, and Merrimack College were all included. All of these campuses released statements explaining that all of it stemmed from the hoax page, but some have other stories too.
Merrimack claims it was all false and actually started a petition they hope other colleges that faced the same issue will sign to get the Twitter page shut down, but some students revert to the question of if there was no clown, why did a dormitory lock down and why did the college send out a text alerting the students of a “suspicious person dressed as a clown may be armed”? All of these speculations continue to buzz around student bodies.
The amount of panic these creepy clown threats have instilled on U.S. citizens is almost unfathomable. Social media threats have spread to schools in states like Pennsylvania, saying that clowns will come to schools to hurt or kidnap students and teachers. The fear of clowns out to attack the public is real and the threats must be taken seriously, but the fact that these clowns have spread dread like wildfire cannot go without recognition.
An associate professor of psychology at WNEU, Jason D. Seacat said in an email to The New York Times that he believed the need to feel connected to a recent event that has generated national news can be a motive for people to continue the hysteria.
He said, “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. So, low risk of being called out for lying and benefit of positive attention for reporting such a claim may motivate some people to lie.” It is important to note though, that persons who made social media accounts to send direct threats to people or schools, and some people who have made false calls to police have been arrested and charged.
A few Springfield students gave their thoughts on the madness.
“It’s scary,” said sophomore Kayla Ellis. “It’s scary, people just overdo things. Clowns are supposed to be fun and cool and now they turned them [sketchy]. You have to look over your shoulder at night.”
Her friend Eileen Hurley also gave her opinion but had a little different take. “There’s so many things [going on] in the world, why are people causing this [chaos]?” she asked. “Whenever people think of clowns they’re going to think of this.”
Perhaps some will take a hint from Hurley and lean away from the terror, but with Halloween just around the corner it may not be likely. As the month of October lingers on, places like the New Haven Public School District have banned clown suits for students for their own safety and the district fears the mentality against clowns can put harmful dress-up participants in danger. With that in mind, Finning reminds her students to be safe and smart. Though public safety will be ramping up its presence on Halloween again this year, she notes that everyone takes a part in public safety and that students must keep that in mind. If they see something, say something.
“I appreciate that students reported when they were concerned for their safety or the safety of others, and calling public safety is absolutely the right thing to do. We always want students to do that; we want them to know public safety takes everything seriously,” said Finning. “I appreciate the sentiment that people wanted to take care of and protect each other and I think that’s one of the things that makes Springfield College special.”
Ali Izzi can be reached via Twitter at @ali_izzi17 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org