Clowns should make people laugh, entertain the audience with slapstick comedy, juggle or make balloon animals. But at some point, clowns went from being happy characters – often the highlight of children’s birthday parties – to nightmare fuel.
Research shows that women are more likely to be startled by clowns than men and that fear typically begins in childhood. dr Asim Shah, a professor and executive vice chair in the Menninger Division of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, told Yahoo Life, “People think only children have something [this fear]but no, adults can have it too.”
So why do clowns inspire fear in so many—or at least seem downright creepy? Experts disassemble it.
What Makes Clowns Creepy and Scary?
Part of the blame lies with the overdone makeup, experts say. “There’s something menacing or scary about people or things that look almost human but aren’t,” says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, neuropsychologist and leader of Comprehend the Mind, told Yahoo Life.
When you see made-up clowns “with all these colorful markings on their faces, they imply a sense of unpredictability and a disguise that can inspire fear — again because of that resemblance to normal people, but not quite,” she says. “The excessive makeup isn’t like what anyone else would wear.”
Shah agrees, saying, “One of the reasons is that the bright makeup can invoke that fear when you hide the whole face. That’s the whole point” with a clown, of course. “But people are scared because they can’t see the person behind it,” he says.
Experts add that horror films such as It – the original from 1990, as well as the newer version released in 2017, both based on Stephen King’s best-selling 1986 novel – only added to that sense of clown discomfort and fear. “Movies like It capitalized on and exploited this fear called coulrophobia, and for good reason, because it’s so easy to see a clown as evil or scary,” says Hafeez.
Yes, it’s true: the fear of clowns is so strong that there’s even a phobia called coulrophobia — an extreme or irrational fear of clowns or clown images, signs of which can appear in children as young as 3 years old (it’s also more common in those who have an anxiety disorder or other phobias), according to the Cleveland Clinic. Coulrophobia causes anxiety, heart palpitations, nausea and sweating, but according to Shah, this phobia is “very rare.”
He agrees with Hafeez that movies like 2019’s joker are associated with “dark memories that evoke fear and anxiety and distrust of the clown” as a character. “The poor clown is maybe the nicest person in the world,” he says. “When you have a kid’s birthday party, you’ve called clowns to your birthday party and they’re the nicest people. But watching these films changes the perception of clowns for some people.”
However, Benjamin Radford, author of Evil Clowns, told AP News that the fear of clowns instilled fear in readers long before clown-centric horror films and before King’s creepy clown Pennywise came in the 1980s. “Stephen King didn’t invent the evil clown. That was way before his time,” Radford said. “But he flipped the coin, if you will.”
Radford added, “It’s a mistake to ask when clowns went bad because historically they’ve never been really good. They’ve always had this deeply ambiguous character.” As Shah puts it, “’Clown’ represents the unknown in society.”
According to a 2022 study, “Fear of clowns has been speculated to be linked to the socially unacceptable qualities clowns embody; for example, the emphasis on the dark side of clowns in popular culture, or the use of clown costumes by certain criminal groups and killers”—most notably serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who at times performed as a clown at parades and children’s hospitals. According to the Netflix series Conversations with a Murderer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes, Gacy once said, “Clowns can get away with anything. Clowns can get away with murder.”
How to overcome an intense fear of clowns?
With the exception of Halloween, most people can easily avoid clowns. But if fear of clowns leads to intrusive thoughts and “you have involuntary dreams or graphic visions throughout the day that interrupt your work or personal life, maybe it’s time to seek a therapist who can desensitize you,” says Hafeez.
Shah says if fear of clowns is affecting your life, working with a psychologist can help. “The best treatment for fears and phobias is exposure therapy, where you slowly expose people to the situations” that are causing the fear, he explains. “They do cognitive-behavioral therapy” — which is about changing unhelpful thought patterns — “and combine it with exposure therapy with a professional psychologist, and then increase the frequency [of exposure] little bit. You try to perceive what triggers their fear and support them accordingly.”
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