A phobia is the irrational fear or hatred of something. Phobias tend to involve such an intense fear that they lead the individual to avoid certain things. It even has the potential to heavily impact a person’s overall quality of life, especially if the person begins avoiding certain activities or events they might enjoy because of their phobia. Coulrophobia is specifically the overwhelming fear of clowns. It might include seeing a picture, encountering a clown in person, or even thinking of one. The fear of clowns can come from an unpleasant experience, the experience of an evil clown personified in a horror movie, the fear being modeled at a young age, or even the uncertainty from childhood that grew into something more substantial. While coulrophobia might not be something a person experiences daily, it can feel almost traumatizing for some people. The intensity of coulrophobia can range from simple discomfort to almost paralyzing fear.
It is not necessarily unusual for people to experience a fear or even uncertainty of clowns. What about clowns scares people or makes them feel uncomfortable?
Clowns are untrustworthy. The clown is a caricature dates even as far back as the Greek and Roman theater. The role was known as “the fool” in the theater and evolved over time into the slapstick comedy that clowns can be known for in today’s world. Some of a clown’s shtick comes from their goofy and silly persona. They also have a prankster or trickster side to them. Old cartoons have illustrated the trick where the flower pinned to the lapel squirts water in the face of an unsuspecting individual. There is an element of trickiness to clowns that is supposed to be fun for those who interact with them. However, it can give the perception of being untrustworthy. If someone us unsure of clowns, the inability to fully be able to trust them can play a big role in their fear.
Clowns have an unknown identity. Most clowns wear makeup, facial prosthetics, and wigs or hats that make their identities unknown. Masks and makeup are usually used to hide and disguise. While these things are not always used for negative purposes, they can be used by those who have bad intentions. The covering of person’s face can create the feeling that someone has something to hide and can prevent that person’s intentions from being known. These feelings can feed into further distrust. In general, people tend to fear the unknown. Clowns have some mystery to them between their prankster personality and the costume they wear. The unknown identity can lead to a very uneasy feeling for an individual who experiences coulrophobia.
Clowns have distorted features. Part of a clown’s costume can include makeup that over-exaggerates the smile or the eyes, a big red nose, a wig, over-sized gloves, and big shoes. Their features are abnormal and unusual. This is something that can really bother people, but it is particularly huge for children which is typically a demographic clowns try to appeal to. In basic interactions, people use facial expressions and body language to make sense of what the other party is communicating. With exaggerated and distorted features, people are left feeling uncertain. This can trigger a response in the brain that potentially communicates, “This individual is unsafe,” activating the fight or flight response. As a young child, this trigger can be terrifying and even traumatizing for them.
Clowns have one archetype that is seen as “evil.” Probably one of the greatest contributors to the fear of clowns is the “bad” clown persona. Clowns are used in horror movies and as scare tactics throughout different cultures. In literature, it was seen in Edgar Allen Poe’s 19th century short story “Hop-Frog.” As a jester, he takes revenge over the king and his cabinet by murdering them in front of his guests. Stephen King’s IT has been brought to the film industry on several occasions to create lasting and disturbing memories with the clown Pennywise. The Joker has been an iconic character in comic books, television, and movies. His psychotic, trickster humor is mixed with a sadistic nature that has made him compelling and terrifying for decades. One of the more classic horror movie scenes includes a clown terrorizing a child as he tries to fall asleep. Poltergeist pairs the “creepy clown” concept with the natural discomfort kids tend to face when laying in the dark as they attempt to fall asleep. There have even been examples of the “evil clown” coming to life in a sense. In the 1970s, John Gacy sexually assaulted and murdered over 30 boys and young men. He was eventually convicted and executed for those killings. Gacy was dubbed the “Killer Clown” because he would dress up as a clown for special events and even children’s parties. In 1990, Marlene Warren was murdered by a person dressed as a clown when she answered the door. In 2017, DNA evidence led to an arrest for Marlene’s murder. While serious crimes and even murder are not common in reality, the “evil clown” archetype has been disturbing many people for a long time.
It can make a lot of sense why the fear of clowns exists. The intensity of the fear can vary from person to person. While true coulrophobia might not be quite as common, the anxiety, the discomfort, and the uneasiness people feel around clowns is extremely common. When breaking down where the fear can come from, it really does make a great deal of sense why people are afraid. The important thing to remember is that coulrophobia, like any other phobia, can be treated. Therapy can help provide tools to manage anxiety that developes from the phobia. As individuals improve in anxiety management, they may be carefully and slowly exposed to their fear. When thoughts, pictures, or interactions trigger their fear-based response, they can use the anxiety management techniques they learned to cope. Over time, their overwhelming fear may become more manageable or even eliminated completely. Therapy and anxiety management can allow people arrive to a place where they are able to live without their crippling fear and live a life without inhibitions.
Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant in sports psychology. Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.