I’m not alone in this. Coulrophobia, the fear of clowns, is one of people’s top ten phobias. The term stems from the Greek koulon, meaning limb, and refers to clowns and circus performers who walk on stilts. Coulrophobia sufferers experience symptoms ranging from mild anxiety to outright panic attacks when faced with people in clown outfits or even just makeup. Serious coulrophobia can extend beyond clowns to abject terror of anyone with a costume or an altered appearance.
But why? What makes the clown, which is supposed to be a symbol of happiness and fun, so terrible to so many people?
Get ‘Em While They’re Young
The most popular theory about coulrophobia is that it stems from a traumatic event in childhood. When we’re very young, even the most mundane things can be very frightening because we don’t have a larger context in which to place them. Though you’d think the circus would be a great place for children- with its popcorn, cotton candy, bright colors, and games- the sensory overload can be extremely upsetting to them.
That was certainly my experience as a child- I hated the loud sounds of the circus, but even more frightening was the clowns’ slapstick comedy, in which they intentionally hurt one another with their pranks. It unnerved me so much that my mom carried me home in tears. To this day, that comedic routine remains a reason for me to be leery of clowns. Their ability to inflict and endure physical pain while maintaining huge, painted smiles means there’s more evil to Bozo than meets the eye.
It is the fear of the mask, the fact that it doesn’t change and is relentlessly comical
Reality Is Scarier Than Fiction
For those of us who’ve had bad experiences with clowns, the terror becomes realer than any other. After all, fear of clowns is based in reality, rather than in fantasy. Vampires, werewolves, and zombies are horrifying in the abstract, but we don’t expect them to actually come staggering off the big screen and into our everyday lives. Clowns, on the other hand, are all too real.
Even if we avoid circuses and children’s birthday parties and never come face-to-face with clowns for the rest of our lives, our fear of what they represent remains intact. The idea that you can’t trust appearances, that evil lurks beneath apparently benign surfaces, is a danger we face every day. After all, most violent crimes are committed by people the victims know. Is that stay-at-home mom really an axe murderer? Is your pizza delivery boy actually a serial rapist? Does your boss mutilate cats in his basement? Clowns remind us that we can’t ever really know- all we see of others is a painted exterior that could be concealing a seriously dark side.
A Cultural Phobia
The media, of course, has done its part to both capitalize on and feed this widespread phobia. The most common image of a clown in movies, television, and literature is a menacing one. Just think of the chilling and child-killing Pennywise in Stephen King’s 1986 novel, It, or the murderous clown in the classic horror film, Poltergeist (1982).
It’s not a coincidence that both of these examples are from the 1980s- it was a big decade for clowns, especially scary ones. At the same time that just about every nursery was decorated with them- including the terrifying (to me) Peek-A-Boo Crib Clown, which threatened infant children while they slept- movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Friday the 13th (1980), and the Halloween sequels were rampant, featuring villains with disfigured or masked faces: Freddy Krueger, Jason, and Michael Myers. In music, we have KISS, whose members’ grotesquely painted faces were popular throughout the 80s. And these are just a few examples.
Why then? The 80s represented a collective loss of innocence for our culture. Only two decades after squeaky-clean television programs like The Andy Griffith Show and Dick Van Dyke ruled the airwaves, figures like Madonna thrust sexuality in our faces and children started finding razor blades in their Halloween candy. Just a few years earlier, in 1978, newswires buzzed with the arrest of John Wayne Gacy, nicknamed Pogo the Clown. At the block parties Gacy threw for his friends and neighbors, he would dress as a clown to entertain the children. Under that guise, he raped and murdered thirty-three young boys and buried twenty-nine of them in his basement’s crawl space.
Politics came into play as well. The ubiquitous Richard Nixon mask is probably the scariest clown costume of all; it recalls the time when we realized, as a nation, that our politicians couldn’t be trusted. Nixon was reelected in a landslide victory right before the Watergate scandal broke. The American public couldn’t see the depravity beneath his facade, nor could we fathom the disillusionment with government leaders and the collapse of old-fashioned good-versus-evil warfare that resulted from the Vietnam War. These events, which characterized the 1970s, created a wake throughout the ensuing decade.
Today, of course, we all maintain a degree of cynicism when it comes to politics and public figures. But in the 1970s and 80s, it was all fresh and raw, and the scary clown embodied our collective unease. Suddenly, the friendly Bozo the Clown from the 1950s became a cold-blooded murderer to reflect the national mood.
A Fear Not Easily Overcome
Clowns still persist in our culture, of course, and remain menacing figures. Heath Ledger’s peerlessly evil Joker in The Dark Knight (2009) is just one example. So what are we coulrophobes to do?
For those with severe phobias- people who are driven to panic by images of Santa Claus, for example- psychiatric treatment and hypnotherapy may be necessary and helpful.
For the rest of us, the prognosis isn’t so good. Sure, we can avoid the circus and certain movies, but the underlying fear of masked evil is a real one that we face every day. We can’t make our politicians or our coworkers any more truthful or know for sure that they’re not hiding some dark secret. All we can do is be honest ourselves and sustain a little faith that people are essentially good.
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