Why Are People Afraid of Clowns?

Coulrophobia is no laughing matter. This irrational fear of clowns can cause panic and nausea. Although it鈥檚 a rare phobia, many people find clowns creepy if not downright scary. Why? The answer lies partly in the prevalence of evil clowns in popular culture鈥攖hink Pennywise in Stephen King鈥檚 It (1986). However, according to researchers, there are actual psychological reasons why we fear clowns.

To begin with, a clown鈥檚 makeup can be unsettling. It hides not only the person鈥檚 identity but also that person鈥檚 feelings. Worse, the makeup can result in mixed signals if, for example, the clown has a painted-on smile but is frowning. Then, there鈥檚 the uncanny nature of the makeup itself. The oversized lips and eyebrows distort the face so that the brain perceives it as human but slightly off. That oddness is heightened by a clown鈥檚 bizarre costume. In addition, clowns are highly unpredictable as well as mischievous, which puts people on edge. Are they going to squirt water at you or give you a flower?

These psychological discomforts produce a fear that is then stoked by negative portrayals of clowns in popular culture. According to some, 1970s American serial killer John Wayne Gacy鈥攚ho performed as Pogo the Clown at charity events and children鈥檚 parties鈥攕olidified the idea of the evil clown, and that trope became common in horror movies and books. So perhaps it鈥檚 not surprising that a 2016 poll found that Americans were more afraid of clowns than of a terrorist attack or even dying.

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