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Harmless harlequins or killer clowns?

Monsters, ghosts and ghouls, oh my!

Halloween is right around the corner and people are getting spooked at haunted houses, going out trick-or-treating and looking their scariest for Halloween parties.

For some people, though, there’s one costume that may be more unnerving than the rest: Clowns.

But why are people afraid of clowns? How did the modern-day jester become a scary Halloween costume and movie icon? Having a clinical phobia of clowns is rare, but it does exist. For most people, a fear of clowns is probably a combination of human psychology, mixed signals and pop culture.

If you or someone you know experiences extreme fear and panic of something that is ultimately harmless, you may have a phobia.

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder that fixates an irrational fear on an object that’s not actually harmful. Phobias can cause panic attacks, sweating and nausea. There are many types of phobias and many different triggers. General phobias such as agoraphobia are triggered by being in crowds of people, leaving home or traveling alone. Things like heights, blood, animals, spiders and more can trigger isolated phobias.
“Coulrophobia” or literally “a fear of someone who walks on stilts,” is the unofficial word for the irrational fear of clowns. This term arose sometime around 1980, but is not yet an officially recognized phobia by the World Health Organization.

“While being afraid of clowns is becoming increasingly common, having so-called coulrophobia is rare,” said Geisinger psychiatrist Robert Gerstman, DO, FACN. “People with coulrophobia may experience nausea, sweating and difficulty breathing when they see a clown. They may go to huge lengths to avoid being anywhere near a clown. For anyone whose life is seriously affected by coulrophobia or any other type of phobia, it’s best to go see a mental health provider.” 

But what are the reasons that people are afraid of clowns in the first place? Here are three possible reasons:

Uncanny effect
Back in 1919, Sigmund Freud popularized the “uncanny” as a reason for fear. Freud described “uncanny” as something that is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. An example is a very lifelike robot. It may be able to do things like smile, blink, look like a person and talk, but you’re able to see subtle differences in their eyes, movements and speech that can create a sense of uneasiness. This phenomenon explains why some people are creeped out by dolls, zombies and many other nearly-human things.

Because clowns distort their features for effect, it can make them “uncanny.” Clothes, shoes and hair are familiar to everyone, but once someone wears strange clothing, a red nose, exaggerated makeup, oversized shoes and with strangely-styled fluorescent hair, you may start to fixate on these differences and become uncomfortable.

Mixed signals and pattern recognition
If someone smiles, they’re happy. If they frown, they’re sad. These signals are easy to pick up from people—enough so that babies can do it. But that’s not the case with clowns.

“Since clowns paint on their smiles and frowns, you can’t read their emotions or know what they’re thinking,” said Dr. Gerstman. “If a clown has a painted-on smile but isn’t acting or sounding happy, your brain gets mixed signals. This interrupts the pattern that your brain is used to, making you uneasy.”

Another reason people find clowns scary is because they seem unpredictable. This feeling comes from things like squirting flowers, fitting multiple clowns into a small car and doing tricks. These traits make clowns seem other-worldly and less like normal humans—which makes them scary.

Pop culture
“Want your boat, Georgie?” may make your hair stand on end if you saw the movie It. In the first few minutes of the movie, Pennywise lures Georgie near the sewer drain by being kind … until Georgie gets too close.

Movies like It and Killer Klowns from Outer Space have created a mysterious and threatening aura around clowns. Pair that with criminals like John Wayne Gacy and the clown scare of 2016, and the image of clowns in pop culture starts to become more threatening than funny.

“Fear is influenced partly by our experiences and partly by our observations,” said Dr. Gerstman. “When people, especially small children, watch media that portrays something as harmful, you can develop a fear. A good example of this is that after seeing Jaws, many people were hesitant to go back in the water—even though they’d never seen a shark attack in real life. They developed a fear of something they’d never experienced. This is the body’s way of avoiding something it thinks could be harmful and is likely why more people are afraid of clowns today than in the past.”

Not everyone’s fear of clowns can be linked to It or John Wayne Gacy, though. It’s likely that personal experience (like a bad experience with a clown at a birthday party) combines with pop culture depictions to cause the fear of clowns.

In the end, clowns are intended to be fun, but if you know someone has a fear of clowns it’s best not to provoke them—especially young children.

And you might want to steer clear of that sewer grate.

Robert Gerstman, DO, FACN, is an assistant clinical professor of Psychiatry at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine.


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