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Coulrophobia: The Fear of Clowns
When asked to picture a clown, what do you think of? The image that comes to my mind is Ronald McDonald-esque — big red nose, oversized lips, crazy perhaps multi-colored hair, and baggy clothing with large shoes. But for many others the image is a grotesque, snarling clown — such as the one pictured above. However you picture the clown, it can elicit feelings of fear and dread.
This abnormal or irrational fear of clowns can be defined as Coulrophobia (pronounced [kool-ruh–foh-bee-uh]). Though not specifically designated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), Coulrophobia is usually grouped under diagnosis F40.298—Other Specified Phobia.
If you thought you were alone in your fear of clowns, think again:
- According to Rasmussen Reports, 43% of Americans just don’t like clowns.
- Research by Vox shows 33% 18 to 29 year olds admit to being afraid of clowns.
- A study conducted with hospitalized children at Carmel Medical Center showed of 1,160 children, 14 were terrified of clowns (85.7% of the 14 were girls).
- A survey performed by the University of Sheffield showed that of 250 children surveyed none wanted to see clowns in hospital décor. None.
Coulrophobia: Why are People Afraid of Clowns?
Babies Take Their Cues from Faces
So where does the fear of clowns come from? The fear of clowns can have deep-seated roots in our Psyche and can emerge at a young age. At 6 months old, children begin to look to their mother’s or primary caregivers for social cues. Infants find comfort in patterns and things that are recognizable. They learn human behavior and whether or not you are sad, upset, and happy, etc. by looking at your face. They recognize the difference in emotions and respond accordingly. For example, when you make a silly face at a baby they can respond with a smile and laughter.
Freud’s “Concept of the Uncanny”
Many clowns have painted on faces with large smiles that never change and exaggerated features. Features that are strangely familiar, resembling the human face, yet distorted enough to initiate a feeling of anxiety. A young child is unable to determine what emotion is hiding under this painted face. This exaggeration and departure from the norm can lead to repulsion and an innate fear from a young age. Freud was the first to describe this phenomenon, and coined it as the “concept of the uncanny”.
How Clowns are Portrayed in History
According to the Smithsonian, clowns (or jesters) have been around for centuries in every culture. In some eras, clowns were the only people allowed to mock the powers that be. They were given leeway to make light of the faults and shortcomings of nobility. They were the embodiment of pure mischief. Perhaps their mischievous roots have paved the way for the more terrifying clowns of our century.
How do you know if you have Coulrophobia? You may exhibit:
- Anxiousness or nervousness at the sight of a clown; the feeling that your stomach has turned upside-down; the desire to flee from the presence of a clown
- Intense fear and dread and avoidance of events or locations where clowns may be present
- Physical symptoms such as increased heart-rate, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea and vomiting, and full-blown panic attacks
Famous Scary Clowns
Movies that exploit the fear of clowns have run rampant in recent decades, perhaps lending to the prevalence of the phobia. Some of the more notable clowns include:
- Pennywise the Clown: The movie “IT” utilized Pennywise in such a terrifying way. The first time I saw the movie as a teenager I slept (or didn’t sleep) for weeks with my bedroom light on. He’s probably one of the first clowns that comes to mind.
- Pogo the Clown: John Wayne Gacy, also known as “The Killer Clown”, was no fictional tale. He assaulted and murdered at least 33 teenage boys in the 1970’s. He dressed as a clown for parades, charitable events, and parties, which is how he came to be known as Pogo.
- The Joker: The super-villain found in Batman comics with a permanent grin etched into his face. Dubbed a psychopath, there seems to be no method to his madness.
Other clowns found throughout movies include:
- Twisty (from American Horror Story)
- The Poltergeist Clown
- Captain Spaulding (from House of 1000 corpses)
- The Alien Clowns (from Killer Klowns from Outer Space)
- Zombie Clown (from Zombieland)
Clowns in the News
Most clowns can be spotted at a Circus, birthday party, or relatively contained areas. But, In 2016, clown sightings became a widespread phenomenon. These instances brought clowns to the forefront of daily news, perhaps triggering a nationwide (and even worldwide) response of fear. Some recent headlines:
In August 2016, a 9 year-old boy told his mother two clowns tried to lure him into the woods near his home. Since then, clown sightings have cropped up across the United States, Canada, and countries around the globe. Many of these sightings were just people looking to create fear and cause mischief without carrying out criminal activity.
However, not all of the sightings were purely mischief. In September, a woman in Ohio was on her porch smoking when a clown grabbed her by her neck and threatened to kill her. On Halloween, a Florida man and his family were victims of a clown attack, beaten by a crowd of about 20 people wearing clown masks.
Here are some techniques to help manage and treat your fear of clowns:
- Re-frame and modify the way you think about clowns. Think through where your fear originated. Repeat to yourself that it is just a person wearing makeup. That it was just a movie. That their purpose is to entertain and make you laugh.
- Be present when a professional clown begins to apply their makeup and costume—let yourself visually see that what’s below the service is truly human.
- Expose yourself to clowns slowly, such as looking at photos of clowns online until your fear at the sight of one begins to lessen.
- Go to a circus or production where you can have a seat far enough away that you can look on the object of your fear from afar and recognize that it can do nothing to harm you.
For more advanced treatment for the fear of clowns, you can seek professional counseling. Finding a therapist is as simple as consulting your preferred search engine.
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