Last week, students at this university  widely circulated a photo of what appears to be a clown holding balloons in front of South Campus dorms. Since late August, reports of clown sightings have been sweeping the country, leaving many wondering if there is a real threat.

The panic began Aug. 20, when children from Greenville, South Carolina, said clowns tried to lure them into the woods. The story was mostly an uncorroborated oddity until Sept. 4, when a very similar story was reported from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Clown sightings continued to be reported every few days throughout the month of September, culminating in a mass hysteria of sorts early last week. The sightings became a viral sensation with videos of purported sightings circulating Twitter.

Memes about fighting off clowns became commonplace, increasing in prevalence at the same time reports of clowns began to come from college campuses. Students at James Madison University, Clemson University, Belmont University, this university and, most infamously, Penn State University have all reported clown sightings.

Students at Penn State organized a “clown hunt,” which consisted of at least 500 students congregating in a mob with the intention of stopping the reported clowns on their campus.

However, Penn State Police Sgt. Mike Nelson told the Centre Daily Times there were no legitimate reports of clowns to authorities. The rumor spread over social media, culminating in the witch-hunt-esque search for clowns.

Nelson’s comments are similar to the alert sent out by the UMPD on Oct. 4.

“The University of Maryland Police Department has not received any reports of clown sightings on our campus,” the alert reported.

Despite the law enforcement making it clear no clowns have been reported so far, the rumor and fear continued to spread, causing local schools like Northwestern High School in Prince George’s County to be shut down due to threats of clowns over Instagram.

Although this seems like a phenomenon, it is similar to the clown reports that circulated in the 1980’s. Not long after the conviction of John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer known as the “Killer Clown,” who worked as a clown for children’s parties, reports of clowns terrorizing communities began to increase.

In 1981, a Boston-area school counselor alerted a school district of reports of clowns harassing children. The memo began a panic that spread from Boston to Kansas City. The reports were all very similar to these recent ones–almost all of the reports came from children who claimed to have been chased by clowns or lured into the woods.

However, also similar to recent reports, no real harm was done, and no real clown sightings seem to have occurred. In fact, the string of reports is referred to as “Phantom Clown Sightings.”

Mass hysteria, defined by Dictionary.com as, “a socially contagious frenzy of irrational behavior in a group of people as a reaction to an event,” has caused widespread panic over unfounded fears before.

A defining characteristic of mass hysteria is a large group of people all experiencing identical, or at least similar, irrational reactions to some kind of fear-inducing event.

However, sometimes it is more sinister, as in the Halifax Slasher scare of 1938, in which people in the town of Halifax, England reported being slashed by a razor-wielding man. The victims had cuts on their bodies, but they did not match razor cuts and no evidence was ever found regarding an actual criminal. The reports have been attributed to mass hysteria.

In modern times, social media has the ability to facilitate mass hysteria. People are able to quickly and easily spread reports of any kind of occurrence, whether mundane or otherwise.

Although not exactly mass hysteria, the legend of “Slender Man,” a meme that gained popularity on the website Creepypasta, inspired a similar widespread fear. Slender Man, an abnormally tall man with very long arms dressed in a suit, began as a digitally created image for a thread on the website Something Awful. The goal of the thread was to create a new paranormal figure.

It later inspired an entire mythology behind the photo. By 2011, videos and online games associated with Slender Man gained popularity.

Then, in 2014, two pre-teen girls stabbed their friend 19 times to “appease Slender Man.” Not long after, another young girl stabbed her mother with the same motivation.

Although these cases are more likely attributable to individual mental illness as opposed to mass hysteria, (Morgan Geyser, one of the girls involved in the first case, was diagnosed with early onset schizophrenia), viral online sensations still have real impacts.

The Internet has the capability to spread stories in a manner that previously only existed through word of mouth. Viral news stories, such as the clown sightings and Slender Man, can and do affect real world behavior.

Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of DonkeyHotey’s Flickr account.

Katrina Schmidt is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at schmidtk@terpmail.umd.edu.

 

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