Why Are Some People Afraid Of Clowns?

Why Are Some People Afraid Of Clowns?

- in Weird
Coulrophobia - Fear of clowns

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.Clown Fear

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.

  • Michele

    My sisters and I have been scared of clowns since we were little. Not phobic, just wary. All that forced frantic merriment just seemed wrong to us, covering up something serious. I’ve never seen anything to disabuse me of that feeling. I don’t like being pressured into jocularity or pushed back to childhood, and that’s the impression I get that they’re trying to do. They just seem so dissonant with reality, in not a good way.


      I’m scared of most clowns. On my 4th birthday, my mum ordered a clown and he chased me. I fell, my teeth were full of blood & blood was everywhere. I HATE CLOWNS!

  • Michael “Tuba” Heatherton

    I’ve been clowning since 1978, and have occasionally found myself performing at a venue with one or two frightened children and/or adults.
    I give these folk lots of space, and a choice.
    Experienced clowns know all about coulrophobia and hope curiosity will trump fear so everyone can have a fun day.
    In my experience the good clowns will go away when you ask them to.

    Tuba Heatherton

  • Dave “Looie” Lewis

    I’m with Tuba. I don’t want to ever give someone additional reasons to fear or dislike clowns so I try to be acutely sensitive to both young and older and back off when it looks like they aren’t to keen on me being there.

  • John

    Clowns are grotesques. A childs natural reaction on seeing one for the first time is fear bordering on terror. It has to learn that they are harmless and sometimes funny.

  • alex

    Uh, wow clowns really can be scary… Sweet, this is a good site. Thanks for terrifying me by the way. :)

  • clint

    It seems to me that stating we learn to fear clowns is not taking into account most childrens’ initial reaction to them. Isn’t it more likely that there is an evolutionary component in that anyone trying to hide their face or features is usually up to no good? From theives wearing masks to tribal warriors wearing face paint during attacks, the human race has had millions of years of people doing horrible things and trying to hide it. It is natural to have a mistrust of someone who is hiding anything, especially their face.

  • PoP-PoP

    Pretty messed up how Clowns get such a bad rap from a movie and from a serial killer because those in society can’t process the fact that John Wayne Gacy is the killer, not his clown. Also that IT is just a movie about a FICTIONAL CLOWN. Society in and of itself is so willing to overlook facts of individual wrongs and brand a whole group as the same. Pity. What happened to individual thinking?? Why do you (those fake clown haters) all act like sheep being led around? Wake up to reality folks. Clowns, REAL Clowns, are loving and caring and want nothing more than to bring a smile. The crimes committed by a person identify the person. A movie is a movie.

    • Gill

      I have hated clowns for as long as I can remember but when I watched ‘It’ I LOVED Pennywise. I think it’s because you get to see through the disguise to the monster beneath? Anyway, I have had a fear of clowns since I saw first went to the circus so don’t go blaming horror films for it, there has to be something else to be scared of.

  • Ryan Rosensweig

    I think that clowns can be frightening to children because they can lead the kids draw a false conclusion of what they are witnessing. Like the article stated, -clowns are often involved in scenarios that would leave a normal person in extreme pain and yet the clowns themselves still smile (or at least appear to be smiling.)- This could -a child that was perhaps bullied and/or victim of a traumatic experience- to misinterpret the situation as a scenario in which the body of -the person behind the clown makeup and costume- is being controlled by some sort of evil force; an evil force that forces the actors to dress the way they do and pretend to be happy as they are being subject to pain and ridicule. However, this is not what’s actually happening.

    If a child were to misinterpret a clown act as such, he/she would be fearful of the aforementioned non-existent evil presence. This child would be afraid of suffering the same fate as he believed that the performers were suffering. This child would think that where ever the clowns were, the evil presence was, just waiting to abduct him/her and use him/her in his/her sick torture.

  • alejandro vasquez

    Clowns are just trying to be fun and exciting. I was afraid of clowns because I figured out that their just trying to make your day feel good (movies like Stephens Kings IT, Clownhouse, Gacy, Poltergeist, Drive thru, etc. are just movies. They’re fake but in real life they’re nice & fun just trying to be your friend.

  • Miranda Miller

    I have been terrified of clowns since I was 5. I can’t look at a picture of a clown without crying. I did see the movie IT when I was 5, and that is one reason why I am terrified of them. When people found out I was afraid, they would dress up as clowns, send me clown pictures and do everything they could to scare the crap out of me. I don’t think I will ever be able to get over this phobia.

  • Valerie

    I’ve always been afraid of clowns because you can’t see their true expressions, I even dressed as one for Halloween to try to overcome my fear, but I still absolutely hate them.

  • lesley

    I have no recollection of the initial incident but I must have been about 2 years old (now 57) when my parents took me to a circus. When the clowns came around, my mother said I started screaming and wouldn’t stop until she took me out of the ‘big top’.
    They knew one of the clowns (a neighbor’s son) and took me to his caravan so that I could see him take his makeup off but I suspect it had the opposite effect as I have always felt very ‘uncomfortable’ whenever I see a painted face and cannot watch any sort of ‘slapstick’ comedy that involves ‘buckets of goo’. If something comes up on the TV I have to leave the room.

  • Gill

    Just thinking about clowns make my skin crawl, but I love Pennywise from ‘It’, weird! I think maybe he’s ok because you get to see him as the monster behind the mask? I have a memory of a clown from years ago, he had leggings or tights with false hairy legs and it was gross (I’m talking over 35 years ago!), they’re always really noisy and in your face… I just don’t like them at all. p.s I’m typing this with a look of complete disgust on my face thinking about those legs, hubby laughing!!

  • Emily

    Ever since I was little I was always scared of clowns. In 5th grade, a clown came to the school and I hid under the bleachers. I don’t even know why I’m scared of them, just the thought of them freaks me out!

  • lizagegenava

    I mean how could you not be afraid of clowns? They are ugly, scary and definitely not funny. The thought of their freakishly large feet and mouth really makes me wanna barf or die… I know many people think it’s weird, but I don’t find it weird at all. Clowns are very often in horror movies, there’s gotta be a reason, right? They are considered to be scary and unpleasant. I was scared of clowns since, I don’t know, forever. I remember my grandmother took me to the circus and the second I saw clown, I started crying. When my family decided to bring clowns for my birthday, it was a huge mistake! They just ruined the whole thing. People keep telling me recently that they’re deathly afraid of clowns and honestly, I am kind of relieved because for quite some time I thought I was a freak or something.

  • scatternerd

    “It” did it for me, but the problem with my coulrophobia is that it’s not a flight reaction, but a fight one. I end up violent towards clowns, even if they don’t deserve it, so I do my best to avoid them. However, people think it’s just a laugh riot to subject me to clown pictures, expecting just a scare and a cry or something like that. They rarely expect me to get unbelievably pissed off at them and/or try to maim them or the picture.

    A phobia is a phobia, regardless of how ‘silly’ it seems. I think arachnophobia is silly (even after suffering brown recluse bites), but I’m not running around shoving spiders in peoples’ faces.

    • JiGGLeBiLLy

      For me it was the clown doll in the movie Poltergeist. Creepy!

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