Coulrophobia – Why are we scared of clowns?

If you haven’t heard of the clown craze that has been sweeping the US and now the UK then I’m gonna assume that you’ve been living in the ocean for the past few weeks. People have been dressing up as clowns, going out when it’s gotten dark, purely just to scare people – and it’s working. Some of these ‘clowns’ are wielding weapons, reports are that some have even been trying to lure children into forests, but the majority of them are simply standing in the dark, or chasing people just to scare them. But why? And why are we so scared? Not many people would be totally comfortable when faced with a stranger dressed up as a clown, but why not? Clowns are linked to our childhood, linked to laughter, birthday parties full of colour and joy…right? Perhaps not…

(Trigger warning: clearly there are going to be LOTS of pictures of clowns in this blog post, if you genuinely suffer badly from coulrophobia- the fear of clowns- then just be warned…)

If I asked  you to list famous clowns, I reckon the only non-evil clown you could think of would be Ronald McDonald, famous for advertising food guaranteed to give your children obesity and diabetes and a salt intake big enough to sink a ship (and apparently he’s not evil…)


But the majority of modern famous clowns are those linked to horror, evil and destruction – usually fictional. Here are a few examples:

From Stephen King’s most famous book (1986), miniseries (1990)and soon to be movie (2017) IT you’ve got Pennywise; your local neighbourhood terrorising clown. He loves to fill children with terror and kill them, because he finds them easier to kill that adults; he can shape shift, manipulate and possess. Oh, did I mention he’s a demonic entity as well?

If you ask people what they found most scary about the 1984 film Poltergeist, they usually say the part where the clown toy attacks the boy. Watching it now, it’s not that scary – the film was out over 30 years ago, and horror films now have better effects than ever. However something about that scene and that clown is unsettling. Even if you watch the same scene in the 2015 version of the film, it’s not particularly scary, just very unnerving.

Finally, one of the most modern scary clowns in fiction is definitely American Horror Story: Freak Show‘s Twisty the Clown. Wearing a filthy clown costume, unwashed makeup and a grinning teeth mask to cover his missing and infected jaw, Twisty doesn’t even have to try to look creepy. Once he’s killed their loved ones, and trapped them in a cage out in the woods, Twisty liked to entertain his prisoners with clown tricks that you’d see at a children’s party, only to be sent into a vicious rage if he did not get the reaction he wanted. Even once you know Twisty’s backstory and feel slightly (only slightly) sorry for him, he still cannot stop being creepy.


Creepy clowns aren’t only present in fiction however. If anyone else is like me and has a big interest in serial killers, then perhaps you’ve heard of John Wayne Gacy. Gacy was a children’s entertainer, he dressed up as his own character called Pogo the Clown. One of his famous quotes is “A clown can get away with murder”. Ironic considering at the time he said this he was on death row, convicted of raping and murdering 33 boys; a real life killer clown.


They’re one of the best horror tropes, though they’re meant to be one of the best children’s party entertainers. How can this be?

A clowns face has a lot to do with this – whether it’s face paint like the majority of those above, or whether it’s a mask such as those featured in the opening scene of The Dark Knight (2008). These masks can trigger a psychological phenomenon that Freud labelled as “the uncanny“.

The uncanny is where something is strangely familiar, but slightly mysterious. It explains that feeling where you look at something and it’s not quite right. For example – if you look at a clown’s face paint a lot of them have very high eyebrows, so their face is always made to look as though they are surprised. Their eyes are painted bigger, and wider. However what is really uncanny about clowns is their mouths – their mouths are quite often painted into a large smile. This is uncanny because as humans we know that smiling is a good and positive thing, however something about smiling all the time makes us feel uncomfortable.

Historically, clowns have evolved from the idea of jesters. These were hired, usually by royalty, to entertain at large parties and important events – particularly in front of the King. If they did not make the King laugh, they were often executed. However, on top of this frightful fact, a lot of the jesters hired by kings were facially mutilated. They underwent a procedure which disabled the muscles in their face which made the mouth frown, and had the muscles that made the mouth smile permanently enabled.

Let’s take a look at the Joker – one of the most iconic characters in pop culture ever. Though he’s not exactly a clown, he is inspired by jokers/jesters in which clowns have evolved from. He also has the same features as a clown – face paint, coloured hair, and usually a costume. He has a smile on his face all of the time – Jack Nicholson’s Joker had a smile as the result of a chemical incident, Heath Ledger’s Joker’s smile was a chelsea smile exaggerated with makeup, Jared Leto’s Joker is just simply happy about all the crazy shit he does throughout the whole film and smiles all the time to show off that golden grill of his. Someone smiling whilst committing arson, murder and torture is freaky and appears slightly psychopathic.

With other clowns, uncanny is portrayed in a different way. For example, when Pennywise smiles he looks friendly enough rather than menacing, other than the fact he has razor sharp teeth. Twisty is also smiling all the time due to his mask, however he never talks in front of his victims at all, which is always unnerving behaviour. Heath Ledger’s Joker also pulls magic tricks out of the bag, telling his audience he was going to make a pencil disappear – before slamming a mans head onto it. Sure, the pencil disappears so his trick worked, but murder isn’t a particularly common magic trick amongst friendly clowns. This is an example of quite extreme uncanny – clowns are meant to do magic tricks, sure, but something about the situation isn’t quite comfortable throughout and all is made clear when the man is murdered.

The other side of the face paint, or more so if they are wearing a mask, is the fact that the individuals identity is hidden. This is a psychological phenomenon called deindividuation. This can occur when an individual is covering their face, or when they are in a large group where all the individuals are engaging in the same behaviour. It involves being unable to be singled out, or identified as a single individual. Therefore clowns are seen only as clowns when they are in their full costumes rather than who they are as the people behind the costume. They take on a whole new identity. Masks have been a huge trope in films. Mainly horror films, for the villains to hide their identity. But also in superhero films, for many heroes to hide their identity too. The villians in the pictures below wouldn’t have been half as scary if they were not wearing their masks (from left to right; the dark knight, the purge, the strangers, friday the 13th).

So, when wearing a mask the public see the clown, not the person. There is an unnerving feeling when it comes to not quite knowing who a person is. Deindividuation means that it’s difficult to read and interpret the emotions and true expressions and objectives of these clowns. Who knows if that clown is just going to stand in your way and just be an awkward prat, or if it’s going to pull a knife out on you? Masks have historically made people nervous, even if you’re not scared of them, not being able to automatically read someones facial expressions, eyes, mouth, identity – it goes against human nature and our survival instincts. When it comes to children’s parties, the clown could be a complete stranger, just hired by a family to entertain the children. He would arrive in his costume, entertain in his costume, and leave in his costume. Sure, they may have known his stage name, but they have no idea who he really is – creepy right? Especially when we reflect back to John Wayne Gacy aka Pogo the Clown; children’s entertainer, murderer and rapist.

Deindividuation results in a higher likelihood of the person engaging in anti-social and criminal behaviour. Their face in covered, and in the case of this clown crazy, they are also sometimes in full costume. This makes it almost impossible to identify them if they are not caught at the scene. If they are wear a mask sold at a shop, how many other people also have that mask? Who’s to know that they even bought the mask? If they are wearing a full costume, they can’t even be identified by a hoody they were seen wearing that same night, or the size 6 shoes they have that left a mark in the mud – it’s all just a costume, and a way to completely hide their identity. They’re less likely to get caught, so more likely to engage in that criminal behaviour.

Anarchic behaviour
Finally, not only is it a clowns face that unnerves us, but their behaviour. Historically their behaviour has been anarchic – no rules, no principles. Their costumes for starters goes agains the social norms – they stand out, they’re easy to spot, even in the dark. If a clown was to stand in the middle of a dark park you’d still be able to see them; probably why so many people are getting involved in this clown craze, because they know they will be seen and it won’t be a failure. It’s not hard to spot a clown. Their acts have also been anarchic – throwing pies in peoples faces, and squirting water at the audience are not socially acceptable behaviours unless you are a clown and you can get away with it. Not to mention magic tricks, which defy not social norms but seem to defy scientific ones.


Therefore clowns are used to bending rules and getting away with it, which makes us as the public wonder what these clowns wondering our streets at the moment can get away with.

Are these clowns breaking the law? Well the ones wielding weapons and luring children away definitely are, but what about the ones who are standing in the middle of car parks to scare people? Or chasing after people with no means to catch up to them? Sure, they’re breaking societal norms because that behaviour is just really bloody weird – but to them it doesn’t matter because no one knows who they are anyway. And even if they are breaking the law, if they aren’t caught at the scene how can they be identified in the future?


As with any crazy phenomenon that sweeps the country, they are probably several reasons as to why people are dressing up as clowns and scaring the crap out of people. However the reasons listed above are a small snapshot as to why they are doing it, how they can get away with it, and how we’re all pretty much shit scared of stumbling across one of them whilst walking home in the dark.





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