Whether you call it a hoax, an urban legend, a marketing stunt, or Halloween hype, it is undeniable that the presence of seemingly threatening figures in clown costumes has taken over both social media and popular media outlets, causing panic among many students and community members alike.
Concerns of personal safety have elevated at Muhlenberg College in recent weeks due to the distribution of purportedly local photos depicting clowns lurking in public. One such photo contains the face of a clown in a roadside bush, captioned with expletives and posted via Snapchat.
Chanse Moyer, a student at Bloomsburg University, admits to taking and posting said photo in Cressona, PA but has declined to comment further. This indicates prior claims that photos were taken at Cedar Crest College are false.
Chief Brian Fidati, Director of Campus Safety at Muhlenberg College, was aware of the clown Snapchat but was skeptical of its origin. The photo has been proven to be easily constructed using photo editing and superimposition software. Fidati affirms no reported sightings on the Muhlenberg campus but says that any issues would be treated seriously by campus safety.
Despite the ambiguity of surfaced photos, many still suspect clowns are a local threat due to an abundance of news articles, including: “Who Are the Clowns Scaring People in the Lehigh Valley?” (Lehigh Valley With Love); “Creepy Clown Scares Residents in Northampton County” (WFMZ Channel 69 News); “Pennsylvania Clown Sightings Linked to Stabbing, Harassment” (The Washington Times); “Spooky Clown Sightings Unsettle PA Towns” (Penn Live); and even articles in The New York Times and Rolling Stone. All articles mentioned were published fall of 2016. Many articles trace back to the same sources— such as the Associated Press—from which information has been generously embellished.
“I will say this is getting a little out of hand,” said Assistant Chief Gail Struss of the Allentown Police Department, “and I think it’s more the people talking about it is [SIC] creating more of a buzz than what’s actually happening.”
Struss confirms incidents of clown sightings in the city of Allentown but says there have been no arrests and no one has been harmed. “We have made our officers aware of [the situation] and I would say to the public that if you feel threatened to please contact us,” said Struss.
“Some people report seeing these clowns but they’ve never done anything—they’re just walking or standing somewhere,” said Officer Bryan Phelps of the Bethlehem Police Department. “We didn’t have any crimes committed by these clowns.”
Some have speculated that Dorney Park’s annual Halloween Haunt is connected with the clown scares— these speculations are false. “We don’t actually allow people to dress up for Haunt,” said Caitlin Stibitz, Manager of Public Relations & Communications at Dorney Park. “The only people that are dressed up are actors and our employees.” For those hesitant to attend, Stibitz adds, “Everyone who enters the park has to go through security measures which include bag check, random wanding, things of that nature. Once they’re in, they’re not allowed to reenter as an added security measure during Haunt.”
Students at Muhlenberg have differing interpretations of and responses to the sightings. “I thought that they were very scary—I was very intimidated by them at first,” said Jenna Gainsboro ‘17. Gainsboro has no prior fear of clowns but has purchased pepper spray as a safety precaution. She suspects social media images of sightings are fake.
Kevin Thomas ‘17 has spoken with peers who expressed interest in dressing as clowns for Halloween but have deferred to announcements from the college discouraging such behavior. Despite this, Thomas has not let his guard down. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to walk out tonight and some dude is dressed as a clown standing in the middle of Tilghman [Street],” said Thomas.
In light of Halloween, costume shops in the area are profiting from the recent attention to clowns. “There’s [SIC] been a few people that have come in and said they’re worried about [the clowns],” said Louella Torrence, Manager of Drop Me A Line Costume Shop. “However, we sell more evil clowns than ever. We really sell to both kinds of clowns—creepy ones and funny ones, friendly and evil.”
Party goods retailer Party City has declined to comment.
From a psychological perspective, Muhlenberg professors of psychology Alan Tjeltveit, Ph.D., and Jeff Rudski, Ph.D., see this phenomenon as an unremarkable function of human behavior.
“Comedy often involves challenging boundaries and people acting or saying things they would usually not say or see in typical everyday behavior or interactions,” explained Rudski. “In the safe space of a circus or party, these violations of norms (the social violation of spraying somebody in the face with a flower, compounded with the physical violation of a flower doing the spraying) is unexpected. When you leave the confines of such safe spaces, the unexpected can easily be interpreted as threatening.”
Rudski interprets the abundance of clown material in the media as mass hysteria. “Panics are most likely to spread when people feel unsafe or unsure of their environments or the stability of the future,” said Rudski, adding that the current US election could be a catalyst of sorts.
“If people want to get over their clown phobias, they should spend time with clowns,” said Tjeltveit. It is unlikely, however, that a clown will publicly present itself, given that the majority of concern is based not on fact but on rumor. Tjeltveit believes the panic will soon pass.
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