Clowns are supposed to make people laugh, entertaining audiences with slapstick comedy, juggling or making balloon animals. But somewhere along the way, clowns went from cheery characters — often the highlight event at kids’ birthday parties — to becoming nightmare fuel.
Research shows that women are more likely to be creeped out by clowns than men and that the fear typically starts in childhood. However, Dr. Asim Shah, professor and executive vice chair in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life: “People think only kids would have [this fear], but no, adults can also have it.”
So, why do clowns evoke fear — or at the very least, seem downright creepy — to so many? Experts break it down.
What is it about clowns that makes them creepy and scary?
Part of the blame lies with the exaggerated makeup, say experts. “There is something ominous or creepy about people or things that look almost human but are not,” Dr. Sanam Hafeez, neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind, tells Yahoo Life.
When you see clowns in makeup “with all those colorful markings on their faces, they imply a sense of unpredictability and a disguise that can instill fear — again, because of that resemblance to normal humans, but not quite,” she says. “The exaggerated makeup is not how someone would otherwise wear it.”
Shah agrees, saying, “One of the reasons is that the gaudy makeup can cause that fear when you hide the whole face. That’s the whole point” with a clown, of course. “But people are afraid 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, which came out in 2017, both of which are based on Stephen King’s 1986 bestselling novel — have only exacerbated this feeling of unease and fear around clowns. “Movies like It have capitalized and exploited this fear called coulrophobia, and with a good reason, because it is so easy to see a clown be wicked 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 (it's also more common in those who have an anxiety disorder or other phobias), according to the Cleveland Clinic. Coulrophobia causes anxiety, a racing heart, nausea and sweating, but, Shah points out, this phobia is “very rare.”
He agrees with Hafeez that movies like 2019’s Joker are associated with “dark memories, which cause the fear and anxiety and distrust in the clown” as a character. “The poor clown may be the nicest person in the world,” he says. “When you have a child's birthday, you used to call clowns to your birthday party and they're the nicest people. But when you see these movies, that changes the perception of clowns for some people.”
However, Benjamin Radford, author of Bad Clowns, told AP News that the fear of clowns came long before clown-centered horror movies and before King’s creepy clown Pennywise sparked fear in readers in the 1980s. “Stephen King didn’t invent the evil clown. That was long before his time,” said Radford. “But what he did was turn the coin over, if you will.”
Radford added: “It’s a mistake to ask when clowns turned bad because historically they were never really good. They’ve always had this deeply ambiguous character.” As Shah puts it: “‘Clown’ represents the unknown in the society.”
According to a 2022 study, “it has been speculated that fear of clowns is linked to the socially unacceptable qualities that clowns embody; for example, the emphasis in popular culture on the dark side of clowns, or the use of clown costumes by certain criminal groups and murderers” — most notably, serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who at times performed as a clown at parades and children hospitals. According to the Netflix series Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes, Gacy once said: “Clowns can get away with anything. Clowns can get away with murder.”
How can you overcome an intense fear of clowns?
With the exception of Halloween, most people can easily avoid clowns. But if a fear of clowns causes intrusive thoughts and “you have dreams or graphic visions involuntarily throughout the day, interrupting your work or home life, it may be time to seek a therapist who can work with desensitizing you,” says Hafeez.
Shah says that if a fear of clowns is impacting your life, working with a mental health professional can help. “The best treatment for fears and phobias is exposure therapy in which you slowly expose people to these situations” that cause the fear, he explains. “You do cognitive behavioral therapy” — which involves changing unhelpful thinking patterns — “and combine it with exposure therapy with a professional psychologist and then increase the frequency [of exposure] a little bit. You try to perceive what is triggering their anxiety and support them accordingly.”
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