Many people suffer from true coulrophobia, the fear of clowns. Even without a full-blown phobia, everyone seems to agree that clowns are just a little bit scary. But have you ever wondered why? Logically, a clown is simply a person wearing makeup and silly clothes, and yet they still tend to give just about everyone the creeps.
10 The Painted Smile
There is something unnatural about the fact that clowns are always smiling. We are logically aware that this red, painted smile is fake. Yet it makes it more difficult to tell when the person wearing the makeup is showing actual emotion.
Johnny Depp was quoted as saying that when he was a child, he had nightmares about clowns. He claims that painted-on smiles make it impossible to figure out if clowns are happy or hiding the fact that they are about to bite your face off.
This fake smile makes most people feel uncomfortable. As social creatures, we read each other’s emotional cues to interact with one another, to become friends, or even just to make small talk. Imagine trying to talk to a normal person who never stopped smiling, even for a moment.
In Psychology Today, Dr. Jordan Gaines Lewis wrote that a clown’s painted-on smile limits the emotions that we can interpret from its face. Clowns also ask us to smile back, and we might not actually feel like laughing or smiling at that very second. Even in the best scenario, we may feel awkward or annoyed by a clown. If there is a real fear there, however, this pressure can add to the terror.
9 They’re Unpredictable And Untrustworthy
Clowns are zany and crazy, and part of their comedy is that you’re never sure what they will do next. They could pile 20 of their friends into one tiny car, spray you with water from a flower on their shirt, or throw a pie in your face. Part of a clown’s identity is doing over-the-top things that would not typically be considered normal behavior.
People thrive when they can stick to a daily routine and often suffer mental stress and anxiety when their lives are unpredictable, unstable, or unsafe. So it only makes sense that interacting with a clown can be frightening.
According to an article in Scientific American, clowns are “tricksters” whose masks give them the feeling that they can abandon typically acceptable social behavior. We are never sure what they are going to do because, by definition, clowns are trying to push the limits of what other people will tolerate before they snap.
8 Fear Of The Unknown
Dr. Penny Curtis from the University of Sheffield noticed that the pediatric hospital had multiple paintings of clowns on the walls. She decided to poll 250 children aged 4 to 16 who were staying in the hospital to find out how they felt about these images of clowns. The results of her study showed that the clowns gave the vast majority of these kids the creeps, even the ones who were too young to have ever seen any horror movies with clowns.
The conclusion from this study is that the children simply find them to be “frightening and unknowable.” Looking at a painting of a clown is not the same as looking at a picture of a kitten, for example. Children and adults alike can see an image of a kitten, and they automatically have an understanding of what a kitten is. The image of a clown shows an abstract creature that is difficult to categorize, almost like looking at an image of an alien, except we know that clowns are real.
7 They Are Creepy And Hard To Sympathize With
When clowns have makeup on, they typically stay in character at all times. With regular actors, the public is accustomed to understanding a general idea about their career.
We also understand that there is a difference between the person we see on the cover of magazines and the “behind-the-scenes” clips versus the characters they play on TV or in movies. It is easy for us to understand that acting is a job, but it is very difficult to comprehend the motivations behind wanting to perform as a clown as a career choice.
In the textbook titled New Ideas in Psychology, researcher Francis McAndrew conducted a study, explaining different stimuli that constitute “creepiness.” He defines being “creeped out” as feeling slightly threatened but not enough to run away.
So you wallow in a sense of discomfort and unease while being around this person because you are ignoring your natural instincts to run away due to politeness. When McAndrew polled people on their opinions of every occupation that exists, clowns were considered to be the most creepy—even more than funeral directors and taxidermists.
6 Mass Hysteria
In 2016, the “killer clown” phenomenon began, with more and more video footage and reports of creepy clowns doing strange and unsettling things in cities around the world. Time called it “clown hysteria.”
While the majority of these clowns were simply loitering and trying to play a prank, they were all suspected of criminal intent. Many people were up in arms, trying to protect their loved ones from potential clown attacks.
There were even nine clown-related arrests in Alabama. Juveniles who dressed as creepy clowns as a prank during school hours were accused of making “terroristic threats” because they were interrupting classes and scaring students with coulrophobia.
In sociology and psychology, this is an example of mass hysteria—a phenomenon in which an illusion is shared by a group of people who identify something as a threat. No matter how illogical this fear may be, it leads to widespread panic.
In an article by Erika Engelhaupt in National Geographic, social media is blamed for the mass clown hysteria. With the ease of sharing information instantly and the way viral videos spread, it gives the appearance of a phenomenon happening more frequently than it actually does.
5 Popular Culture
Human beings have two types of fear: innate fear and learned fear. An example of an innate fear would be the fear of heights. Many of us experience overwhelming fear when standing on the edge of a cliff or visiting a tall building. Fear is a normal part of our survival instincts.
A perfect example of the learned fear that clowns may have murderous intent would be John Wayne Gacy. He was a serial killer who dressed up like a clown in his spare time. His story was fuel for nightmares, inspiring coulrophobia in people who may not have had it before.
In the years following his crimes, clowns became major characters in horror movies. Watching Stephen King’s It or Poltergeist can be enough to make most people afraid of clowns.
In popular culture, this fear of clowns is not new, however. Joseph Grimaldi, one of the original famous clowns, died of alcoholism. Charles Dickens was in charge of editing Grimaldi’s memoirs and painted a dark picture of Grimaldi. Dickens included this Grimaldi quote in the book: “I am grim all day, and yet I make you laugh all night.”
This was perhaps one of society’s first glimpses into the hidden darkness behind the happy makeup of the clown. English professor Andrew McConnell Stott credits Dickens for igniting the spark of fear in society that clowns are not what they appear to be.
4 Childhood Trauma
In a documentary filmed by National Geographic, a woman who suffered a childhood trauma involving clowns openly screams and cries in fear when she sees them. She is even revolted by the toys and images of clowns to which she is exposed as part of her therapy. Once the psychologist brings a clown to the office, the terrified woman can barely keep it together.
In an article from Psychology Today, one woman recounts the traumatic experience of becoming a volunteer on the Bozo the Clown TV show when she was a child in the 1960s. She was forced to sit on his lap and see up close that he was frowning despite his painted smile. He also smelled like alcohol.
She panicked and vomited all over Bozo, who started cursing. The illusion of the happy clown was shattered, and the experience has traumatized her ever since. It is likely that many other people with a serious case of coulrophobia had similar traumatic experiences at a circus or birthday party that led to their fear of clowns.
3 Inferiority And Superiority Complexes
Throughout history, part of a clown’s purpose was to help with the spectator’s self-esteem. Court jesters (aka “fools”) were meant to be laughed at for being so stupid, and clowns are often the same.
In a study by the Theodora Foundation, the researchers traveled with clowns to pediatric hospitals in Ontario, Canada. In their findings, the researchers mentioned that children may feel better about themselves if they can laugh at someone else for being silly or stupid. This gives terminally ill children a desperately needed ego boost.
However, this type of humor may not be the best for the average person. According to Psychology Today, people who act superior toward others are actually very insecure and are seeking reassurance from others to feel good about themselves. According to Greater Good, a University of California, Berkeley, publication, happy people do not feel the need to be superior to others.
In short, the average person with a fair amount of happiness and self-esteem does not seek to laugh at someone like a clown. Since many people do not want or need that kind of laughter in their lives, it feels uncomfortable to be around a clown who is trying to force it upon you.
2 They Just Aren’t Funny Anymore
Throughout time, popular comedy has changed depending on current events and a natural evolution of cultural taste. For example, if we see a clown falling on a banana peel or hitting their friend over the head with a giant hammer, this would be an example of physical, or “slapstick,” comedy. However, slapstick has not been popular for some time because society has too much sympathy for the pain of other human beings.
Our discomfort with clowns could partially be attributed to cultural changes in what we find funny. In an interview with NPR, Linda Rodriguez McRobbie mentions that people were wary of clowns for years. Then, in the 1960s, clowns had a sudden rise in popularity with characters like Ronald McDonald and Bozo the Clown. McRobbie believes that their popularity was simply a fad and that society is back to its normal state, which is to see clowns as creepy rather than funny.
Children and adults alike may become confused and uncomfortable when they are expected to laugh at something they simply do not find to be funny. It is common for people, especially children, to feel social anxiety and fear in situations where they are not sure how to react.
1 Freud’s Uncanny Theory
In his 1919 publication “The Uncanny,” the world-famous psychologist Sigmund Freud explains that we can be frightened by something that is familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time. Using the hypothetical example of a human being with a severed head or limbs, Freud says that we will immediately focus on the body parts that are different instead of the ones that are still intact.
A real-life example is how many children are frightened when they see an amputee because they cannot understand why the person’s legs are gone. It also makes many adults feel sad or uncomfortable for a variety of reasons.
Harvard professor Steven C. Schlozman elaborates on the “uncanny” theory in comparison to clowns. He explains that a clown has similar features to a human being—a mouth, a nose, ears, hands, feet, and hair. However, a clown’s body parts are enlarged or exaggerated—giant shoes, abnormally large lips painted on a white face, and a huge, red nose. Just like the example with the amputee, people notice the differences in other human beings much more easily than the similarities and that can cause fear and discomfort.
Shannon Quinn is a writer and entrepreneur from the Philadelphia area.