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Creepy clown scare unverified in Westmoreland, most elsewhere

Jacob Tierney
| Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, 10:09 p.m.
A creepy clown design.
PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest
A creepy clown design. PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

There are no creepy clowns roaming the streets in Westmoreland County.

Rumors to the contrary on social media sparked a frenzy of phone calls to police by worried residents Tuesday night, prompting the Greensburg department to make this declarative post on its Facebook page early the next morning:

“We can assure everyone we do not have any rogue clowns running around town.”

The event was another chapter in a strange saga of people in several states recently reporting that creepy clowns have been spotted lurking in their neighborhoods.

The rumor started here when the Westmoreland County Fire Alerts Facebook page urged its nearly 2,000 followers to “stay in your homes, doors locked,” because of reports of menacing clowns in Greensburg, Hempfield, Manor, Sewickley and Smithton.

That post was picked up by the Westmoreland County Fire/911 Incidents Facebook page and shared with its 17,000 followers.

Neither page is affiliated with any official emergency services agency, but thousands of people shared the warnings on social media within hours of the original posts.

“Last night, it was a big thing. Everyone was up in arms and freaking out about it,” Greensburg Police Sgt. Shawn Denning said.

The county's public safety director, Roland “Bud” Mertz, condemned the pages for spreading the rumors.

“As far as I'm concerned, there's no credible report,” he said. “I'm really irritated. When I get a notice from the police department saying I need to be worried, that's when I'll be worried, not from some unverified Facebook page.”

Westmoreland County Fire Alerts deleted its post. In a followup, the page stated the report came from the administrator's friends, and in a later comment announced the page would be shut down. While the page does not name an administrator, someone who responded to a request for comment on the site offered an apology about the problems the post caused.

Westmoreland County Fire/911 incidents removed the post and apologized publicly.

“Facts should be proven before a post is posted,” said Josh Brinker, a East Huntingdon volunteer firefighter who runs the page. “When I found out it was false, I deleted the post off my page and issued an immediate apology.”

Westmoreland residents are not alone in their concern over creepers in grease paint.

In Masontowm, Fayette County, police have stepped up patrols after a spate of reported clown sightings, according to a letter sent to parents by Albert Gallitan Area School District.

Clown sightings have been reported in the media in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and beyond, all within the last month.

There is no evidence of an actual clown-related menace. Almost all reports have been unsubstantiated, or confirmed to be the work of pranksters.

Andrew Stott, an English professor at the University at Buffalo, has written about the changing perception of clowns in culture.

“It's just further evidence of the fact that clowns as figures of fun and childhood are an exhausted phenomenon now,” he said.

Clowns harken back to the industrial age and are now a “horrifying reminder of a past that's gone away,” he said.

But Jim Koontz of Latrobe doesn't see it that way. He used to perform as a clown and teach classes about the art. He calls the perpetuation of the scary clown stereotype “despicable.”

“We did all we could while we were in it to promote the goodness of clowns, and how they can help people while they're feeling down,” he said.

The book “It” by Stephen King, and the ensuing movie adaptation, marked the low point for people's acceptance of clowns, Koontz said. The story about a child-stalking, sewer-dwelling clown named Pennywise was wildly popular, to Koontz's chagrin.

“After that came out, it was very, very hard to be a clown,” he said.

Koontz doesn't know much about the reports of evil clowns, but if there is anyone dressing up in circus garb to scare people, they should be arrested to stop giving clowns a bad name, he said.

“If it's true, if they're ever caught, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent,” he said.

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646.

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