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Here’s why we’re so afraid of clowns


Are you afraid of clowns? If so, you are not alone. Coulrophobia, or fear of clowns, is a widely recognized phenomenon. Studies indicate that this fear is present in both adults and children in many cultures. Yet it is not well understood due to a lack of targeted research.

While many possible explanations for the phobia have been advanced in the academic literatureno studies have specifically examined its origins. We therefore set out to find why people are afraid of clowns and to understand the psychology behind this phobia. We also wanted to explore the frequency of fear of clowns in adults and examine the severity of the fear among those who reported it.

To do this, we developed a psychometric questionnaire to assess the prevalence and severity of coulrophobia. The Fear of Clowns Quiz was completed by an international sample of 987 people, aged 18 to 77.

Are you afraid of clowns? If so, you are not alone.

More than half of respondents (53.5%) said they were afraid of clowns, at least to some degree, and 5% said they were “extremely afraid”. Interestingly, this percentage of people reporting an extreme fear of clowns is slightly higher than the reported proportions for many other “extreme” phobiassuch as animals (3.8%), blood/injections/injuries (3.0%), heights (2.8%), calm water or weather (2.3%) , confined spaces (2.2%) and airplanes (1.3%).

We also found that women are more afraid of clowns than men. For what ? It’s not clear. But this observation echoes the search results on other phobias such as the fear of snakes and spiders. We also found that coulrophobia decreases with age, which is also seen for other fears.

A man dressed in a red, blue, green and yellow clown costume waves at us.  He has a multicolored wig, white makeup and a big red nose.
Not all clowns are meant to be scary, but that doesn’t stop us from being scared of them.

The origins of this fear

The next step was to explore the origins of the fear of clowns. A follow-up questionnaire was given to the 53.5% of people who reported having at least some degree of fear of clowns. This new set of questions offered participants eight possible explanations for the origins of this fear, namely:

  1. A strange or disturbing feeling due to the makeup of the clowns which makes them look not quite human. A similar reaction is sometimes seen with dolls or mannequins.

  2. The exaggerated facial features of clowns convey a direct sense of threat.

  3. Clown makeup conceals emotional cues and creates uncertainty.

  4. The color of clown makeup reminds us of death, infection, or blood damage, and elicits disgust or avoidance.

  5. The unpredictable behavior of the clowns makes us uncomfortable.

  6. The fear of clowns was instilled by his family members.

  7. Negative representations of clowns in popular culture.

  8. A scary experience with a clown.

Surprisingly, we found that the last explanation, that of a frightening personal experience with a clown, was the least popular with participants. This indicates that personal experience is not enough to explain why people are afraid of clowns.

The head and torso of a scary clown appear in a field.  He has a long white face and red hair.  He wears a clown costume with a ruffled collar and pom poms on the front
Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown in the 1990 ABC miniseries It.

In contrast, the negative portrayal of clowns in popular culture is a factor that seems to contribute much more to coulrophobia. It’s no wonder, since some of the most well-known clowns in books and movies were designed to be scary. We can for example think of Pennywise, the scary clown from Stephen King’s novel It (1986). (This character has recently been the subject of two films in 2017 And 2019with Bill Skarsgård in the lead role).

However, some people are afraid of Ronald McDonald, the mascot of the eponymous fast food chain. The catch is that this clown isn’t supposed to scare you. This suggests that there may be something more fundamental about the appearance of clowns that throws people off.

In fact, the most important factor we have identified is that of hidden emotional signals, suggesting that for many people, the fear of clowns stems from the fact that they are not able to perceive their facial expressions due to of their makeup. We cannot see their “true” face and therefore cannot understand their emotional intent. For example, we don’t know if they frown, which would indicate anger. Not being able to detect what a clown is thinking or what they might do next makes some of us nervous in their presence.

This research has led to a better understanding of why people are afraid of clowns, but other questions remain unanswered. For example, if makeup that masks emotions causes fear, do people who have their faces painted as animals have the same kind of effect? Or is there something more particular about clown makeup that elicits this fear? It is on these questions that we continue our research.

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