Is it the makeup? The clothes? The exaggerated movements? Many people are creeped out by clowns. Some are even downright terrified by them.
But aren’t clowns supposed to be fun and silly? Where does all this fear come from? Let’s pull back the curtains and take a look. We’ll start by exploring just how devastating a clown phobia – or any phobia, for that matter – can be.
Oxford Dictionaries defines a phobia as: “An extreme or irrational fear or aversion to something.”
What makes people afraid of something that’s (apparently) harmless? There’s a lot we don’t know. Scientists think a small, almond-shaped part of our brain, called the amygdala, is associated with fear, and might be responsible for phobias.
People with phobias usually feel a deep dread or panic around the thing that scares them. You don’t have to have panic attacks to be diagnosed with a phobia, but many people with phobias have them, and they can be devastating.
Do you experience any of these things around clowns? You might have a clown phobia. And you’re not alone.
There’s no official name for clown phobia, but the word “coulrophobia” appeared on the internet around the 1980s to describe an intense fear of clowns. Coulro– comes from the Ancient Greek word kōlobathristḗs, which referred to stilt walkers. Kinda makes sense.
Clowns as we know them today didn’t exist in Ancient Greece, so clown phobia doesn’t go back that far. But it has been around since the emergence of clowns in the 1780s.
Let’s take a look at some of the people who have given clowns a particularly scary reputation.
Grimaldi, considered by many the first modern clown, had a tragic personal life. He suffered from depression, alcoholism, and chronic pain from years of physical stunts. His struggles were well-known at the time – he even joked about them on stage.
Grimaldi may have been the first clown with a dark side, but he was mostly just sad, not necessarily frightening. That’s where Deburau comes in. Deburau, a French clown with a similarly sad upbringing, famously murdered a boy with his cane who heckled him in the street.
Does the name sound familiar? He’s not the movie star, but he became almost as famous in the 1970s for murdering 33 men and boys. Gacy was a professional clown who entertained at children’s parties. His serial killings and profession earned him the nickname, “The Killer Clown.”
As if real-life horror stories weren’t enough, pop culture quickly adopted clowns as villains and symbols of creepiness. The Joker, Pennywise from Stephen King’s It, and the doll from the Saw film franchise were all inspired by clowns, and those are just a few of the more infamous examples. There have been hundreds of unsettling clown portrayals in books, tv shows, movies, and video games. And they can be pretty darn creepy.
Watching enough movies or reading enough books about horrifying clowns could make anyone think twice when they come across some grinning guy in a clown suit. But is it really the dark clowns of history and fiction that make us wary? If that’s the case, why are small children, with no prior exposure to clowns, universally frightened by them? There’s clearly something deeper going on.
There’s a theory that says people are revolted or disgusted by things that look and move almost (but not exactly) like a human. Especially if those things have faces. Japanese roboticist, Masahiro Mori, first developed a theory in 1970 to describe this phenomenon: The uncanny valley. It applies when something is close to reality but we can tell something is kind of “off.”
That’s why stuff like this creeps us out:
It makes sense, doesn’t it? Millions of years of evolution have made us finely tuned to detect potential danger. If something is even a little bit off, being creeped out and wary is probably a good adaptive response. Being scared without cause 99 times might just help us survive that 100th time when our fear is justified.
Clown makeup creates an uncanny valley effect. Clowns are clearly human. They walk and talk and move like people, but their faces don’t look like ours. Clown makeup distorts regular human features into something that is almost human looking, but just different enough to be very disturbing.
The impact of clown makeup goes beyond the uncanny valley effect. It functions almost like a mask. We have trouble identifying the clown’s identity and facial expressions.
Who would want to hide their identity and facial expressions? Only someone who has something to hide and doesn’t want to be identified by witnesses.
That’s another reason why clowns can generate an unsettling feeling. It’s just plain weird to watch someone talk and laugh and jump around without being able to really see their face. What’s going on under there? Our minds run wild with the possibilities. Movies and comic books have used masks for years to make villains seem more mysterious and threatening. Real world villains sometimes use them, too.
Originally, clowns were not children’s entertainment. Grimaldi and Deburau had adults crying with laughter in their heydays. Now, of course, we all think of colorful, balloon blowing, Ronald McDonald clowns. Today’s clowns are meant to make kids laugh.
Clown phobia expert, Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, says that’s what makes clowns even more suspicious. They’ve become this “blanketly innocuous thing, and that makes us really suspicious,” she says. They’re too innocent, too happy. No one’s really like that, so it doesn’t feel real. It feels like a lie or a scam.
Hear more about it on this radio interview with Linda Rodriguez McRobbie on NPR.
Clown phobia is a real thing. It affects a lot of people and is based on some very natural – and valuable – human instincts. Of course, that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.
Just remember, most clowns got into their profession because they love making people laugh. With the exception of truly terrifying clowns, like John Wayne Gacy and Stephen King’s Pennywise.
So, if you’re at a kid’s party and they send in the clown, relax and enjoy the show if you can. Or breath deeply and take a slow walk around the block. Or hide in your car. You’re in a safe situation, so just find a strategy that helps you get through the experience with as little fear and discomfort as possible.
On the other hand, if you’re walking down a dark alley, and a clown steps out from the shadows, you might want to consider a different approach. Run like hell.