For some, clowns are the stuff of horrific nightmares. The fear can be so strong that a simple picture of a clown can induce a panic attack.
Often used for entertainment at birthday parties and in circus acts, clowns are supposed to do just the opposite – they’re supposed to create a fun, humorous and happy environment. So why are some people deathly afraid of clowns?
Why Are Some People Afraid Of Clowns?
The fear of clowns is known as Coulrophobia and it is being seen in increasing frequency over the last few decades. This is due in large part to the way clowns are being portrayed in popular culture – movies like Poltergeist and Steven King’s IT portray clowns as supernatural, scary or evil creatures. There was also the infamous serial killer, John Wayne Gacy, who often dressed as a clown to entertain children at neighborhood parties.
Most researchers agree that the main reasons for coulrophobia or ‘clownphobia’ is the make-up and exaggerated features of the clown. These large, extremely exaggerated facial features can often be extremely frightening to children due to unfamiliarity. When adults suffer from this fear, it’s the result of the fear being carried over into adulthood.
Entering The Uncanny Valley
Researchers who have studied the phobia believe there is some correlation to the uncanny valley effect. Because the exaggerated features make it impossible to gauge a clown’s true emotions, affected individuals people cannot distinguish if the clown is as happy as he seems to be, or if he’s about to rip somebody’s face off. Furthering this uncertainty is the clown’s actions. A clown act can include the clown being hurt, or other clowns hurting each other. Since this type of slapstick comedy emphasizes physical pain, yet the clown has a large painted smile, it further suggests that one cannot trust the painted expressions of the clown.
In a broader sense, masked or hidden facial features appear to be the most concerning aspect and may in part be responsible for true coulrophobia. Many films that feature antagonists with masks or disfigured faces usually come from the horror genre and are used specifically to invoke fear. Most notable are Jason from Friday the 13th (hockey mask), Michael Myers from Halloween (plain white mask), and Freddy Krueger from Nightmare on Elm Street (severely disfigured/burnt face). The concept is also being used in more modern franchises like Scream (the killer) and Saw (Jigsaw).
While coulrophobia is a real phobia, there has yet to be any scientific studies done or statistical facts released about people suffering from coulrophobia. The good news is that the phobia is not generally a cause for concern because it is easy for anyone who doesn’t like clowns to avoid coming in contact with them. For more severe or extreme cases, a person can see a good behavioral therapist to help them overcome the fear.
“Hospital clown images ‘too scary‘”. BBC News. 2008-01-15.
Robertson, John G. (2003). An Excess of Phobias and Manias. Senior Scribe Publications.
Kelly, Kevin. “Beyond the Uncanny Valley“. The Technium.