MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In the early morning hours Tuesday, the West Virginia University Police Department responded to a strange call. Thirty to 40 people were searching for someone outside of Towers.
Someone wearing a red nose and blue jacket. And when they couldn’t find the person, they were pretty upset.
The call is the only one of its kind UPD has received this year, but it’s part of a trend around the U.S.
“People have been talking about it because of the rise they have gotten out of it on social media,” said Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston. “Right now we are trying to deal with more important things like break-ins and larceny, so this is a distraction.”
MPD reported there has only been one sighting of a clown, and it was nearly two weeks ago on Richwood Ave., just before the Insane Clown Posse performed at Mainstage Morgantown.
“Dressing up as a clown is not illegal. However, wearing a mask in public over the age of 16 is a misdemeanor,” Preston said. “Folks who say they are hunting clowns, I don’t know what that means, obviously you cannot shoot or hurt them, but it is all about context.”
It seems in Morgantown, the local clowns are being dismissed as college students trying to get a laugh and a few likes on their social media. These clowns are not being perceived as threatening like in many other parts of the nation, and hunting them has become the phenomenon, though few sightings have actually been legitimate.
When around 30 to 40 people were hunting the clowns at Towers Monday, UPD Chief Bob Roberts said the officers informed the group to go back inside, and then searched the area, and found negative results.
“The group was upset and indicated that they wanted to find the clown,” Roberts said. “We were not informed what the person had actually done to upset them.”
The residents’ reactions ranged from skeptical to vigilant, as many students soon took to the streets armed with baseball bats and tasers.
Michael Mcelhenny was among the Towers residents who set out on foot Monday night after several people claimed to see a figure in a mask and a bright red wig lurking in the parking lot outside Lincoln before running into the Campus Connector.
“I’m definitely hoping to find one; they don’t scare me,” Mcelhenny said. “If I do I’ll just start chasing them and try to take their mask off to see who it is, then I will tackle them down until the authorities get there. When I catch the clown I will be able to take all the glory.”
The Residential Advisors at Towers and any other residence hall have received no official directives from Residential Life or their Residence Hall Coordinators.
“I really don’t know what to believe,” a Brooke Tower RA said. “There’s a lot of misinformation going around—if I were to give my residents advice I would tell them to stay safe and try to stay away from the masses going out to look for the clowns so they won’t be guilty by association.”
According to Associated Press, Clown incidents have been reported this week at schools around the U.S., including Penn State University, where police said more than 500 students showed up early Tuesday to hunt for clowns.
Officials at Merrimack College in North Andover, MA, ordered students to shelter in place for more than 30 minutes Monday night and evacuated a dorm after social media reports claimed an armed clown could be on campus.
The clown situations “waste valuable resources and can lead to injuries to both first responders and members of the public,” Connecticut state police said. The pranks “can cause major disruptions leading to schools, businesses and neighborhoods being placed into lockdown unnecessarily.”
“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. “If anything, it’s just distracting us from the real ordinary threats that we face in our everyday lives.”
Rich Hanley, a journalism professor and social media expert at Quinnipiac University, which also had a clownscare 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.
The motivation behind this phenomenon remains a mystery, although one theory suggest that the remake of Stephen King’s classic horror movie “IT” might be playing a role.
Local Morgantown shops, the Illusive Skull and Every Day’s a Party, said they haven’t had many people buy clown costumes or masks.
Pam Markell, an owner of the Illusive Skull, claimed only one person came into their Fairmont store searching for a clown costume. Markell believes consumers are steering away from the disguise due to the viral pranks occurring throughout the country.
Crime Prevention Coordinator Sergeant Peggy Runyon advises students to take precautions when walking alone at night, but if they do happen to see a clown, to take a picture and send it to dispatch through the LiveSafe app.
“We want people to watch out for what is going on,” Runyon said. “If we pick up anything on social media, we will search for it and try to be proactive.”
“I think the activity will decline soon,” said freshman Court Patterson. “Clowns are people too and it’s about to get cold outside.”