Why Are People So Frightened Of Clowns?

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It/Warner Bros. Pictures

A clinic in Dublin is now offering classes to help people deal with their intense terror of clowns, which has been exacerbated following the release of It.

12% of people suffer from coulrophobia, or clown phobia. It’s believed the much hyped return of Pennywise is so traumatic for some people, they could even experience a panic attack.

Even if you manage to dodge seeing the film itself, images of the eery, grinning protagonist are everywhere. Quite possibly a friend tagged you in a comment on this article, forcing you to meet Pennywise’s sinister gaze. Yeah, sorry about that…

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However, I must admit, I don’t quite get the fear. Clowns are supposed to be funny, friendly and child-friendly. When and why did they become such an object of horror?

One theory is we humans view the painted on smile to be somewhat unnatural, and therefore unsettling. We rely upon emotional cues for our everyday social interaction, and the painted faces of clowns make it difficult to know what they are thinking or feeling.

According to Professor of Continental Philosophy at Anglia Ruskin University Patricia MacCormack, the ‘forced’ smile of the clown can make us feel uneasy:

The face is a malleable, moving entity. Forcing a smile which is both grotesque and severe freezes or atrophies the face so it no longer becomes legible.

If we can’t read a face then the face becomes a mask and we can’t read a person.

That insinuates there is something ‘beneath’ we can’t access or trust or know. Similar to contemporary plastic surgery faces which are our modern clowns – frozen and thus unreadable.

American Horror Story/20th Century Fox

Clowns are, by their nature, unpredictable and prone to trickery, there to cause mayhem and disruption.
For many people, this jars with their idea of routine and orderliness and can make them anxious and on edge.

According to Professor MacCormack:

Horror and laughter are as intertwined as sex and death.

When people are uncomfortable they laugh because it builds a defence against appearing vulnerable.

Also the spectacle of the clown is often absurd and violent so they hurt themselves and act like fools which would make us very anxious if we were in that situation so there is a deep sense of horror within the spectacle and the laughter is more cathartic than jubilant.

Julia Banim | UNILAD

Clowns have long been seen to be ‘outside’ of society. In medieval times, the jester could take liberties with the king which more serious members of the court could not; poking fun at his weight or his love life.

In modern society, social and cultural norms have added layers to our fear, most notably through fictional clowns such as Pennywise in It.

According to Senior Lecturer in Film Studies and American Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University Dr Sorcha Ní Fhlainn, popular culture has had a significant impact on how we view clowns:

It may be the subconscious for some people with coulrophobia, but popular culture has certainly shaped the contemporary image of the menacing killer clown.
Remember that the American serial killer John Wayne Gacy dressed up as Pogo the clown to amuse the neighbourhood children – this is an example of the terror of the proximity of the serial killer in the community, dressed up for children’s amusement and entertainment.
Gacy’s victims were teenage boys and young men, many of whom he buried in the crawl space of his house, or dumped in the local Des Plains river.
I think Gacy inspired some of the material we associate with King’s novel and adaptions.

Wikimedia Commons

I decided to speak to, perfectly pleasant, professional clown Mark about why he thinks clowns are capable of causing unease.

Mark views scary clowns like Pennywise to be a ‘surface’ interpretation of the clown, with very little to do with the real business of clowning.

Real clowning to Mark can have ‘a real innocence’ about it. It is less about freaking people out and more about ‘sharing something that’s very human and in a very funny way as well’.

Mark, who teaches clowning, gives the following description of clowns:

The root of which I understand the contemporary clown is a beautiful idiot; a performer who wants to sell their ridiculousness, who wants to have fun on stage and follow the laughs.
They play for the love and laughter of the audience.

TBT Clownlab for performers. #performersplayground #clownlabforperformers #clown #acting #theatre #theperformersplayground

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Mark spoke with me about the important role the clown has in regards to us acknowledging truths about our society, while getting us to look at life in a slightly different way:

Basically, what this person is doing is offering a different level of insight into society.
I think part of the role of the clown is to point the finger at things and make us see how ridiculous we as human beings are.

Despite our cultural preoccupation with clowns being deceptive, it seems they are uniquely capable of offering a different level of honesty, as well as a reflection of our own humanity.

Mark gave the example of comedian Tommy Cooper, whose entire act is based around the timelessly funny idea of human beings ‘f***ing things up’:

We all know what it’s like to get things wrong, and what he does beautifully is he plays with that.
What most of us do actually is we pretend we don’t f**k things up or, if we do, we try and cover it up immediately.

Despite contemporary hysteria over killer clowns and It, Mark is confident clowning will stay relevant for a long time yet:

It’s a timeless thing. Everybody loves to laugh, you know, everybody’s an idiot.
I think as long as human beings have an element of humanity to them, that’s what the clown will play with.

I asked Mark if he had a message for anybody stricken with coulrophobia, and his answer may not entirely relax them:

What would I say to them? I’d say boo!

Yes there can be scary clowns, but there also many hilarious and talented clowns out there, some don’t even always need to have big shoes and a curly wig.

However, if you do spot one with a red balloon, it’s probably best not to follow them into the sewers…