It was just after midnight Tuesday at James Madison University when the clown calls started pouring in. Phones beeped and buzzed. There was no official alert at the Harrisonburg, Va., school, but on Yik Yak, Twitter and GroupMe, students learned of a possible intruder on campus.
Some students panicked; others were just wary. No one really thought it was funny. In minutes, undergrad posses carrying flashlights and pepper spray roamed the Quad, seeking to capture the clown or at least chase it off.
“Most people were mobilized to defend the campus from the person inside the clown suit,” senior Diego Jauregui said. “People definitely felt safe in numbers, and they were discussing what to do if they found a clown. Which would be to charge them and hold them down but not hurt them and call the authorities.”
The JMU clown fright was just one of hundreds that have erupted this week at colleges, high schools and grade schools across the country, forcing learning institutions to respond seriously to a growing national hysteria that many had previously regarded as a laughing matter.
Clown fear rattled schools in the Washington region this week.
Officials ordered a lockdown Wednesday at Northwestern High School in Prince George’s County, Md., after a clown-based Instagram threat. The Loudoun County sheriff’s office in Virginia announced that it was directing patrols at schools in response to the clown scare. A student in Montgomery County, Md., brought a knife to school Wednesday, reportedly to protect himself against any clown attack.
Many of the clown posts on social media have included threatening language that specifically targets individual schools. One threat in the Washington area referred to a clown kidnapping a student, planting a bomb and exploding a school. Montgomery authorities arrested students who posted threats to a school using a clown alias, with the principal of Rosa Parks Middle School citing it as “a great teachable moment to discuss how pranks can have a negative impact with severe consequences.”
Administrators may say that the clown threats are hoaxes, but they feel compelled to address them. Student safety is paramount for school districts and universities after a seemingly unending string of fatal school shootings and threats during the past two decades.
But schools have to thread the needle when it comes to alerting parents without causing further panic. Arlington County, Va., Schools Superintendent Patrick K. Murphy sent an email to parents Wednesday afternoon that attempted to address concerns about social-media threats without ever using the word “clown.”
The message, crafted with police, was carefully worded to not feed any hysteria, said schools spokesman Frank Bellavia. “It’s a fine line,” he said.
Bellavia said that the clown sightings have added an unusual twist to the kind of threats schools receive via social media. “This was a completely new one that we hadn’t seen at all,” Bellavia said.
Parents at Benton Middle School in Prince William County received a letter from Principal Denise Huebner urging them to not overreact but also warning of students who might be inclined to copy the clown threats.
“Please talk to students and urge them to avoid becoming part of the problem,” she wrote. “Students found to be taking an intentional role in this problem will face serious consequences.”
Amanda Yanovitch, who has three children in Chesterfield County schools in Midlothian, Va., said the bus-stop discussion every morning centers on the latest clown-threat rumors. Yanovitch blamed teens for fomenting the fear.
“It’s not even real,” Yanovitch said. “It’s 100 percent pranking, and there’s no threat or anything real actually happening. But it’s October, and it’s getting to be Halloween, and these 13-year-olds don’t understand the fears they are causing parents, so they just think it’s a super-fun prank and they don’t understand the repercussions.”
Police departments across the region have sought to reassure parents and students that they are monitoring the threats but that they are hoaxes. “We’ve found no validity or credibility to the threats,” said Fairfax County police spokesman Don Gotthardt. The Manassas City police said Wednesday evening that they had received multiple reports of clowns “acting suspiciously” online and near schools but said they have “not discovered any evidence to suggest a plausible threat to the public.”
Frank McAndrew, a professor at Knox College in Illinois, has been following this year’s clown scare, which began online in midsummer with unsubstantiated reports of menacing clowns luring children into the woods and other unconfirmed sightings. Some experts say the character of Twisty, a psychotic clown in the popular FX television show “American Horror Story,” has helped fuel the phenomenon. The clown fear frenzy really gathered steam in September and continues to spread.
“In many ways, clowns combine a perfect storm of freaky things,” McAndrew said. “They are mischievous and unpredictable, you cannot tell who they really are or what they are really feeling, and they have an association with serial killers in real life and in the movies.”
McAndrew does not think people should expect the current clown scare to disappear quickly.
“I think that this is a story that has everything,” he said. “It can occur anywhere, almost everyone seems amused or interested by it, and there probably have been enough copycats inspired to keep it going whenever it appears to die down. It has the perfect ingredients of an urban legend, and I do not think that we really want it to end.”
Many parents and educators probably disagree, and some communities have taken steps to quash clown appearances.
Schools in New Haven, Conn., have banned clown costumes and “symbols of terror” during the Halloween season. And in other cities, hoping to soothe frayed nerves, police and city leaders are requesting that people not wear clown costumes at all.
Others are hoping reason alone will suffice.
Simon Rodberg, the principal of D.C. International School, was succinct in the message he sent to students: “Clowns are not a threat to the school. There are no clowns coming to the school. There are no clowns coming to any school.”
The World Clown Association's president issued a statement on YouTube recently urging the clown community to counter "scary clowns" with a positive response. Marsha Gallagher, who has been working as a clown since 1976, said rising paranoia about clowns has led to fewer jobs.
“It’s getting to the point where we’re uncomfortable going out with your whole clown persona on,” Gallagher said. “It’s less about losing income than losing the opportunity to spread the joy and to see people’s faces light up when you walk into the room.”
At the JMU campus, when some students were out chasing the reported scary clown this week, others had locked themselves in their rooms waiting for an all-clear from their friends. But when it comes to creepy clowns, there are no all-clears.
On Wednesday, the worries in Harrisonburg had not evaporated. Senior Emily Hyland said many students are on edge.
“The fear is still there because of what might be out there now that the fear has been presented,” she said.
Donna St. George contributed to this report.