In what might be called an ink blot test on the national mood, a photo of a length of rope dangling from the celebrated Prayer Tower at Oral Roberts University was perceived by some as a hangman's noose and subsequently blew up on the Internet this week.
Though the painting company that tied the rope gave a plausible explanation, at press time, that photo had been viewed more than 635,000 times. It received more than 3,200 up-votes and more than 400 comments on popular social networking site Reddit.
Speculation on the image ranged from jokes that it "looks like someone isn't going to be paying back their student loans" — to genuine curiosity about "how exactly does a noose fit in with a painting rig," as a Reddit user named "Williamabridged" said the photo showed.
"It had no negative intentions. The rope was blown off of the walk planks sometime in the late evening," Ted Curato, owner of TLC Painting, told The Christian Post during a phone call on Tuesday.
"It is called a heaving line knot. We use it to secure our lifelines. That's our fall arrests ropes, and somehow it got blown off after the men had left for the day," Curato said of the knot seen in the viral photo.
Oral Roberts University hired Curato's company to re-paint the Prayer Tower, a source of pride for the 50-year-old school named for and founded by the late Pentecostal evangelist Granville Oral Roberts.
The TLC Painting team had been working on the 200-foot glass and steel structure for about five weeks when someone on campus came across what appeared to be a noose hanging from one of its beams. The unidentified person snapped a photo and posted it online with the description: "Ominous Noose Hangs Hauntingly from private Christian University prayer tower."
But the cut of rope pictured is no noose, Curato insisted. He also challenged an assessment from a knot expert who CP consulted after noticing hundreds of comments online about what the viral image possibly represented.
"I understand an expert has weighed in on this, as far as a knot expert, saying that it is some kind of hangman's noose, but he is mistaken. Your expert is mistaken," Curato added, referencing the assessment of Des Pawson, described in one New York Times article as "one of the world's foremost knot experts, a co-founder of the International Guild of Knot Tyers, and a prolific author of knotting books."
"It is called a heaving line knot. We use it to secure our lifelines. That's our fall arrests ropes, and somehow it got blown off after the men had left for the day," Curato said.
Curato sent another image to CP of what he said was a heaving line knot (shown below), to compare to the knot seen in the viral photo that was originally published on Imgur under the user name "NotAnORUStudent."
"It's a safety issue. It's a very, very strong knot. It doesn't impact the integrity of the lifeline ropes that we use as much as some other knots do," Curato said.
"Whilst it is not that a defined image I would say that there is no doubt that it looks like, or is meant to look like the Iconic Hangman's Noose. I see no connection with scaffolding knots, as far as I am aware there is no need to use a noose with as many turns and the end pointing out at the side in any way to but signify a hangman's noose," Des Pawson wrote in response shortly after being emailed the link and an attachment of the viral photo.
When CP informed Pawson that Curato disagreed with his assessment, that the knot seen in the viral image was a heaving line knot and not a hangman's noose, the U.K. knot expert, officially recognized by Queen Elizabeth in 2007 for his contributions to the rope industry, doubled-down on what he believes the photo shows.
"I stand by my comment that it looks like a Hangman's noose," Pawson wrote back early Wednesday morning, "there are a number of heaving line knots that has [sic] multiple turns as found in the body of the Hangman's noose, but no noose. I would have expected a noose to reduce the effectiveness as a heaving knot (one to increase the distance that a rope can be thrown). An Image search soon shows a variety of forms but none with a loop when made up for use."
But Pawson was mistaken, Curato insisted. The businessman, who described TLC Painting as family-owned, said he was "surprised" that people would suggest that the photographed knot was a hangman's noose.
"It does kind of surprise me that people would assume that. It is surprising to me," he said.
Curato added, "We do background checks on all of our men that we take applications on and basically the men I have out there are good guys. I know them personally and they would not have left a rope hanging off the side of the Prayer Tower like that. It was a complete non-negative intention."
Jeremy Burton, executive director of university relations and communications at Oral Roberts University, sounded thoroughly astonished over the phone Tuesday when informed of Pawson's assessment.
"The truth of the matter is that every couple of years we paint the Prayer Tower. It's an icon recognized around the world. Because of its intricacies it's hard to paint. We've had guys, a painting crew that has been working for weeks going and getting all the little pieces painted and that takes a lot of scaffolding," Burton told CP over the phone earlier Tuesday, before he was aware of Pawson's claim about the knot.
"The picture shows some rope that was there that didn't have scaffolding on it. They had finished for the day and were coming back to it tomorrow. So they're actually still going now. They're not painting today because it's raining. But that's exactly what it is. It's a very, very laborious process to paint that building," the ORU spokesman added.
Burton, like Curato, expressed disappointment that people "would make assumptions" about the hanging rope seen in the viral image.
"The thing that's disappointing for us is that people that aren't on this campus would make assumptions as to what that is without being here. Because if you're on campus, if you're the on-campus community, you will see these people up there painting. They've been painting for weeks," he said.
Burton was asked if the rope was still in place on the Prayer Tower, or if the painting crew was making an effort to get rid of it.
"They are making for sure that as they finish for the day that their ropes are up," Burton said.
He added: "This is a long process. They're not in the same place everyday. They're moving them around because this is a 360-degree building. So everyday they're painting in a different location so they're moving ropes. Everyday they're in the process of taking ropes, moving them."
Burton said that "we don't know who took the picture and don't know at what point in the process that they (the painters) were taking it down. They very well could have been in the process of getting all that wrapped up for the day."
"But it is certain that what is viral or (unintelligible) though is not the truth, the truth is we're painting that building," Burton added.
The ORU spokesman said he was not aware of any students complaining or asking about the viral photo on campus.
"Because again, anyone on the campus can see the painters up there frequently painting," Burton said.
Curato echoed Burton's remarks, explaining that the painting job was "a fairly complex project" and the ropes were an integral safety precaution.
In light of the misunderstanding, he added, "We will make sure that we secure our ropes a little better."
Oral Roberts University, an interdenominational Christian liberal arts school, "promises a thorough education in the context of a vibrant Christ-centered community." The school, which reported 3,481 enrolled students students for the Fall 2014 semester, was ranked No. 46 among regional universities in the West in U.S. News & World Report's 2015 Best Colleges edition.
The university's student body is ethnically diverse, with white (52 percent) and black or African-American (14.9 percent) students dominating its numbers. Another 10.3 percent's race or ethnicity were not identified, according to Forbes' 2015 profile. The university has been proactive about racial diversity, according to U.S. News & World Report, which stated in its profile: "To encourage ethnic diversity, Oral Roberts teams up with the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and operates a year-round Hispanic Center on campus, which helps students overcome language barriers and transition into college life."