Clowns: Why do so Many of us Fear Them?

By Kat Hawes

Fear the unknown

Estimations indicate that approximately 12% of the population are coulrophobic, the
term coined in the 1990s for clown phobia. That is rather high to just be a small minority. In this article you will explore the reasons for this phobia’s development.

Back to childhood

As a kid friendly clowns are introduce in to our lives as those who make cute balloon
animals or the face of our favourite fast food happy meal, but when it comes to creepy
looking clowns, what makes us freak out? The obvious answer is just because they look
scary. But why are clown phobias so prevalent compared to phobias of just anything scary?

Psychology of animosity and the unknown

Our minds fear what we do not understand. Humans – on the whole we pretty much
know what each other is and what any of us are capable of. Clowns, on the other hand, are a fictional phenomenon for a start. Despite being a human, the suit and mask gives an anonymous appearance and separates the human behind the mask from reality, morals, beliefs and values. Numerous studies have analysed decision-making when wearing a mask that anonymises identify compared to wearing no mask. Extensively research has concluded that the anonymity provided by the mask creates irrational judgments in morality especially in making worse outcomes for others.

The fictional element and the mask combined conjures up the fear of the unknown. Your mind is now unable to estimate the risk, and unable to quantify what this creature could be capable of. Upon seeing a creepy clown for the first time, these unknown factors accelerate risk to a high intensity level. This in turn produces the fear emotion and the famous fight or flight response. We are biologically programmed to assess the situation and decide to act through one of two options; either fight the threat or run away. However, again as the perceived “creature” is fictional and wears this anonymising outfit, this inhibits our perception and ability to psychologically gauge our ability to fight as everything about this phenomenon is perceived as unknown. This leads to our likely response, to run away.

How does fear become a phobia?

The first encounter is stored in the mind like a mental record, a memory of the
incident so that upon recurring incidences, the same emotion of fear is elicited and the
same response is produced. The memory engulfs our minds and heightens our anxiety any time we then see even just an image of a clown. Despite our knowledge that images cannot harm us, it’s the memory that sticks and generates our fear.

Perception of clowns and how they elicit the fear of unknown

But what makes the creepy clowns creepy and elicit the fear of unknown? Compared to the nice, friendly clowns we were accustomed to as a kid, the creepy clowns are repeatedly comprised of similar components. They have the razor sharp teeth, commonly in a mouth with black gums and blood dripping out. The teeth and gums alone are symbolistic of generic monster-like creatures and the spikiness of the teeth produce anticipatory  responses of potential harm. And then we have the blood, this is representative of pain so immediately elicits fear in our minds. We are constantly horrified upon seeing blood as associations between blood and pain are strengthen through experience during the developmental stages of our lives. So the blood on the mouth of this fictional “creature” produces fear in association with the pain they may have already caused to others, leading to an immediate fearful emotional response.

Their whole face is usually pure white, and pale faces are associated with feeling unwell, adding to the fear through perceptions that are classified as a not normal appearance. As for their noses, these are commonly red, which again enhances the perception of an inhuman creature. The final and most crucial feature is their eyes. These appear to vary greater between conceptualisations of clowns, some have red pupils, some have just a black pin-size pupil and no iris, others have blacked out eyes or no eyes. However, there is one factor they all have in common, and that is that they all symbolise demonic possession, a popular horror and unknown phenomena that also produces fear. The eyes are therefore the primary element, and the main contributor that gives rise to coulrophobia: an inhuman, creature-like perception of clowns that elicits fear of the unknown.

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Image ‘The Laughing Clowns‘ by Bernard Spragg is licensed under CC 1.0 universal

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