Clowns. They are everywhere, and the mere sight of them can send someone running. And who shouldn’t be scared out of their wits when they see one? Those painted faces and the leering grins that seem to be keeping a dark secret.
Once upon a time, clowns were an enjoyment when the circus was still a big thing. However, due to some strange twist of fate, many are now terrified of these circus performers. It even has a psychological term called “Coulrophobia” or the fear of clowns.
To many, the fear is mainly because clowns look creepy or they weird people out but, just like the pasty makeup they put on, something sits just beneath the surface of this phobia, and not many of us ask about it.
So today, we are counting down the reasons why people are absolutely terrified of clowns.
10. Popular Culture
Let’s start with the obvious. Movies and TV have a large impact on our daily lives. Popular culture has such a hold on us that it can influence the way we think and the way we feel about things.
Fear is a normal part of our lives because, without it, our species may not have reached this point of existence; and according to studies, human beings have two kinds of fear: innate fear and learned fear. Innate fear is something that we may already have to begin with such as the fear of heights or tight spaces.
Learned fear, on the other hand, is contributed by factors we come across in our environment on an almost regular basis. People’s fear of clowns may be explained by events that have happened during their lifetime. It would not be a surprise if people see clowns as murderous psychopaths because they attribute it to John Wayne Gacy, one of the most notorious serial killers of the 20th century that dressed up as a clown to lure his victims, most of whom are children.
But perhaps, the biggest contribution ever made to coulrophobia was the publication of Stephen King’s best-selling novel “IT.” The novel follows a group of friends who decide to face their childhood demon: a creature disguised as a clown called Pennywise. What drove people’s fears even further was when it was later on adapted onto the big screen with Tim Curry in the title role.
9. The Painted Smile
There is something about that almost permanent smile painted on a clown’s face that can send shivers down anyone’s spine. What is even more unnerving is that the smile makes it all the more difficult to tell when the person in makeup is showing real emotions. Imagine trying to interact with a person who never stopped smiling even for a second. The image just conjures up the terrifying face of Conrad Veidt’s character in the silent film The Man Who Laughs or even The Joker himself.
In a publication called Psychology Today, an article outlines that a clown’s painted smile limits the emotions that we can interpret on his face. It creates an optical illusion leading our brain to believe that the face is smiling despite the fact that we can distinguish his makeup from his real lips. It also does not help to a person’s anxiety whenever a clown asks them to smile back. Best case scenario is that the anxiety is fuelled by the awkward situation or the annoyance towards the clown. The resulting fear, in some cases, is piled on by the pressure to interact.
8. Medieval Origins
The Medieval Fool or the Court Jester was the precursor to today’s modern circus clown. It may even be said that the Jester was the precursor to the profession of stand-up comedy.
However, despite what we know of the Fool or the Jester as presented to us by movies, we have really just hit the tip of this harlequin iceberg.
While they do, in fact, provide an amount of entertainment in the King’s court, the court Jester was also a satirist who would poke fun even at those who hold the highest and most influential positions in government without losing his neck.
Andrew Stott, an English professor, specializing in what is called the “clowning culture” points out that “the medieval fool was continually reminding us of our mortality, our animal nature, of how unreasonable and ridiculous and petty we can be.” He also adds that these Fools and Jesters have a distinct and tenuous grip on life and society that allows them to see it from an almost morbid perspective.
He continues that “clowns have always been associated with danger and fear… they push our understanding to the limits of reason, and they do this through joking but also through ridicule.”
What may be driving the point home here is that a deeper kind of fear towards clowns is that they may remind us of our own insecurities and fear that we try to hide with an imaginary mask the same way they hide their faces behind paint and makeup.
7. Unpredictable and Untrustworthy Tricksters
People thrive when they are in a daily routine. It can give anyone a sense of security knowing that things are going as planned and on schedule; it brings normalcy in an otherwise chaotic environment.
Clowns, however, are the antithesis of order and normalcy. What is normal about fitting two dozen people in a tiny, two-door car? The idea that they can be disruptive is something that most people find unbearable. Their irrational characteristics make them walking nightmares to people who find peace in being in control.
The fact that clowns wear a thick layer of makeup, a kind of mask, gives them license to abandon normal social behaviors and norms. By definition, clowns continuously push the limits of what people can tolerate until they eventually snap. Beneath all that color, we are never sure what they plan to do next, and that alone can cause some serious mental anxiety.
6. Not Funny Anymore
People’s attitudes towards comedy and what’s funny change with time. Decades ago, we would be rolling on the floor with laughter at the slapstick antics of the Marx Brothers or Charlie Chaplin. Today, physical comedy or prop comedy isn’t as funny as it used to be.
The discomfort that is attributed to clowns may also stem from the fact that their brand of funny has long since expired. In a time where topical humor gets more giggles than a pie in the face, clown comedy is quite obsolete.
Children and adults alike may end up confused or anxious when they are expected – or, at the worst, forced – to laugh at something they simply do not find funny or amusing. The underlying social pressure and social anxiety brought by this have a much bigger impact in children when their confusion switches to terror because they simply do not know how to react to the situation.
5. Mass Hysteria
Sometimes we become afraid of something because most people are afraid of them. Going back to “learned fear,” our survival instinct depends upon what our current environment is. For example, you may not have a fear of riding elevators and then, one day, the one you are on breaks down leaving you trapped for a good hour or two. Such a situation can create a kind of trauma that will rewire your brain into alerting you about potential danger the next time you ride an elevator.
The same goes for clowns. For a time, people with coulrophobia aren’t as many but in 2016 when the “Killer Clown” phenomenon was making waves on the internet with people dressing up as clowns and pranking innocent passers-by, suddenly coulrophobics have been popping up left and right.
It is the result of mass hysteria that, suddenly, people are finding themselves in fear of clowns even when they never had any kind of trauma with them in the past.
Mass hysteria, in psychological terms, is a phenomenon in which an illusion is shared by a group of people that sees or identifies something as a threat or imminent danger. No matter how ridiculous or illogical it is, the result is mass panic.
The “Killer Clown” phenomenon swept different parts of America and Europe most especially, and the fear of clowns spread like wildfire even to those who have not experienced this morbid fad.
4. Stranger Danger
In the same vein as the murderous John Wayne Gacy and the French Killer Clown named Jean-Gaspard Deburau, clowns have been associated with the phrase “Stranger Danger.”
The past fifty or so years have seen a spike in the concern over suspicious characters who want to spend time around children. Many depictions of child predators in movies and television are usually dressed as colorful circus clowns who bait children with sweets or a funny story.
What’s tragic about this is that these predators exploit an image that is normally associated with comedy, fun times, and laughter. Clowns as a figure of fun are mostly shown by Ronald McDonald, the poster boy for McDonald’s fast food. Sadly, Ronald McDonald’s innocent image has been forever tainted by the twisted motivations of some people.
These days, people think twice when a clown offers them a free balloon.
3. The Unknown
In a study conducted by Dr. Penny Curtis of the University of Sheffield, she noticed that clowns gave a vast majority of the children in a hospital pediatric ward “the creep” when faced with an image of a clown. The discovery was made after polling 250 children between the ages of 4 to 16 to find out how they felt with images of clowns. Even more surprising was that the youngest participants of the study showed that they were uncomfortable with the images even if they have never seen a single horror movie with a clown in it.
Dr. Curtis then concluded that children found clowns frightening because of their abstraction. For example, when we are shown an image of a puppy, we know that it is a puppy. We know how to categorize it. However, an image of a clown is something alien that is challenging to place in a category to many people. Its abstraction makes it hard to pinpoint what it is or what it should represent.
2. Childhood Trauma
Childhood trauma is, perhaps, one of the main reasons why people develop an irrational fear of clowns. A bizarre experience may leave a degree emotional or psychological damage as we grow older and clowns seem to take the top spot of childhood traumas.
In one story published in Psychology Today, a woman recounts her experience as a volunteer on the Bozo the Clown TV show when she was a child. She narrates that she was forced to sit on Bozo’s lap where she can see that he was frowning despite his painted smile. Also, she recalls that Bozo smelled of alcohol.
Unable to know what she was supposed to do, she panicked and began to vomit all over Bozo who began hurling curses in front of the already frightened child. It was this experience that completely shattered the image of the happy clown in her head and, from then on, related the experience of being near clowns.
It is highly likely that many adults have been in a similar situation – whether in birthday parties or the circus – that planted the seed of their fear towards clowns.
1. The Uncanny
What better way to top this list off than with the father of modern psychiatry himself?
In 1919, Sigmund Freud published a paper called “The Uncanny.” In this paper, Freud explains that we can be easily frightened by something that is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. He uses the example of a body with a severed head or limbs saying that we will immediately zero in on the body part or body parts that are different rather than the ones that are still intact.
Putting it in the perspective of clowns, there is a degree of familiarity with a clown’s entire look. A clown has human features: a pair of arms and legs, hands with fingers, nose, ears, feet, et cetera. However, despite his human features, a clown’s anatomy tends to be exaggerated. Depending on the clown, he or she may have large feet; a big, red nose; a pasty white face; or a large mouth.
Similar to a child seeing an amputee, our attention tends to focus on the exaggerated. A child may not understand why an amputee is missing certain limbs and panic. Translating it to a person’s fear of clowns, people will notice the differences in a clown’s anatomy and become immediately uneasy or develop anxiety.
So there you have it! Are you creeped out by clowns?