Why Are We Scared Of Clowns?

Given the blockbuster popularity of IT, there’s no wonder clown-phobia is plaguing movie enthusiasts everywhere. But where did this fear of clowns come from?

2017’s version of Pennywise the clown, the preferred disguise of Stephen King’s amorphous monster, IT, is the latest in a long line of clowns that terrify people into staying awake at night. Last 2016 saw a wave of creepy clown sightings, starting in America and stretching to the UK, Australia, Brazil, Croatia, Finland, Germany, and numerous other places. In some instances, the sightings turned into robberies and assaults, causing a wave of almost supernatural fear to sweep across the world. And there’s no end to the creepy clowns that have been found haunting the plotlines of horror movies throughout the ages.

“IT” 2017

But why, exactly, do we fear the same disguise that we sometimes don to celebrate children’s birthdays? How did a figure meant to charm turn into one that terrified people, instead?

It turns out there are a host of reasons for the prevalence of coulrophobia (fear of clowns), stretching back to medieval times. The archetype of the jester was known to be an amusing figure, bringing joy and light to the royal court. But the spectacle had an underlying psychological impact – the jester’s intention was usually to make fun of the audience, through over-the-top gestures and garish costumes that would’ve been just as easily as alarming as it was amusing. Andrew Stott, an English professor specialising in clown culture, told the Telegraph that it was because jesters reminded us ‘of how unreasonable and ridiculous and petty we can be,’ adding that clowns are an extension of that, as they’ve ‘always been associated with danger and fear, because they push logic up to its breaking point.’

And starting from head to overly large feet, the figure of the clown is dressed to impress fear upon even the most stoic of people. A clown’s smile may be its trademark, but a face that refuses to change from a grin can be as scary as a thunderous expression. Perpetual smiles look unnatural and forced – and when coupled with overly wide, jeering eyes, present something that resembles a predatory animal more than a happy entertainer.

Harvard Medical School’s Steven Schlozmann, in an interview with Vulture, attributed it to Freud’s theory of the uncanny: ‘that’s where something is familiar enough to be recognisable but weird enough to give you the shivers.’ A smile that never goes away, he explains, is terrifying because people subconsciously understand that it’s almost impossible to be smiling all the time, because ‘if you’re smiling all the time, something’s not right.’

Lastly, the very idea of a clown can be frightening in its entirety, given that it’s a disguise that completely conceals the wearer’s identity. Disguises are inherently scary, because there’s no telling the truth behind the illusion. People respond best when they feel like they’re in control of the situation to a reasonable degree, but when there are no cues from which someone can interpret facts about the person, there is no way of deriving understanding or safety from the situation – which is what the ridiculous clothes, white face paint, elaborate makeup and eternal smile amount to.

With all the sinister connotations of the archetype’s appearance and history, it’s no wonder that storytellers of all kinds love the strange juxtaposition of the clown – a fun creature turned monster in the blink of an eye.

(Feature image by Paul Bence)