Clown scare hits the Berkshires; wave of reports yields nothing

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It's no laughing matter.

Reports of menacing clowns have been plaguing the Berkshires — and elsewhere — in recent days.

And while authorities on Tuesday said the local sightings have been unfounded, the fear such a phenomenon can stoke is quite real.

"A lot of people have been very, very scared and upset [by this]," said Joe Durwin, a journalist and local folklorist. "I think it's important to kind of remember that there has not been real fire underneath this smoke."

Police in Adams, North Adams and at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts investigated reported sightings of clowns on Monday and Tuesday and found them unsubstantiated. The Pittsfield Police Department did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment on alleged clown sightings in the city on Monday night.

The Adams Police Department investigated a report of a clown on the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail between the Adams Visitors Center and Russell Field.

The first call came at about 7:30 p.m. Monday.

Police response was nearly immediate, as the police station is only a couple of hundred yards from the trail, said Officer Michael Wandrei, who responded to the call. He said he was there within seconds and didn't see anyone on the trail.

"I think this is just kind of a hoax-y thing," he said.

The second call came in at 9:15 p.m. The woman reported that a friend of hers saw the clown, he said.

The department did not receive any other calls reporting clowns that night, he said.

About 10:30 p.m., MCLA police responded to unfounded reports claiming there was a person dressed as a clown on the campus and in parts of downtown North Adams, according to a public safety alert from Daniel J. Colonno, director of public safety at MCLA.

Hours later, the North Adams Police received a report that a person was assaulted by a clown on Ashland Street, but the investigating officer indicated that the caller did not appear to be injured, said North Adams Police Director Michael Cozzaglio.

A thorough search was conducted of the MCLA area and the downtown, but officers did not find any clowns, he said, nor have there been any other such reports.

"I'm not going to feed into this frenzy," Cozzaglio said. "I don't want to make anything of it."

Reported incidents involving clowns have been spreading throughout the country since mid-August, Durwin said.

Initial reports came from the Carolinas, and drifted North and West, he said. Now, about 33 states have reported similar sightings of clowns.

Unfounded reports have been made in other parts of the state as well.

On Monday, Merrimack College in North Andover went into lockdown following a tweet reporting an armed clown on campus. A similar unfounded report circulated that same night at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

In Agawam, a clown was captured on video chasing a car Saturday night as part of a publicity stunt for a haunted attraction. The video went viral, with over 1 million views.

However, in the more than 100 cities reporting sightings since mid-August, no real threats have been found, Durwin said.

There have been no crimes committed in connection with the recent reports of clowns, with the exception of a stabbing of a teenager in Pennsylvania allegedly by a person wearing a clown mask, he said.

Mass panics involving clowns are nothing new, Durwin said.

"Clowns have kind of popped up as this perennial scare thing," he said.

The common legend involves a clown or a group of clowns harassing children, but the legend often changes to reflect current issues. For example, this current wave of panic has elements of Facebook bullying and school lockdowns, he said.

People are sometimes inspired to become participants in urban legends like clown panics in a phenomenon known in folklore as ostension, he said.

Ostension can take the form of overt acts like false reporting, but can also involve simple acts like sharing a Facebook post that one knows may not be accurate, he said.

"It's the horror movie experience," he said. "We want to challenge those areas of our perception."

Evil clowns were almost unknown in popular fiction before the 1980s — when the novel "It" by Stephen King and the film "Poltergeist" were released, both works of horror fiction that prominently feature clowns.

In the last few years, there has been a spike in the number of horror movies featuring clowns, he said.

"People are taking the core campfire tale that's gone around the world for years ... it's a common narrative," he said. "Some people identify with wanting to be that evil clown character."


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