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why clowns are scary

 

 

Anyone with half a brain knows that clowns are s**t scary! I’m joking of course, I’m not scared of anything. There are however hundreds of thousands of people who have clown phobia - or coulrophobia - to give it its technical term. OK, so maybe I find clowns pretty creepy, but then so do most people I meet.

 

 

Not long ago I attended a friend’s Halloween party dressed as a lurid psychopathic clown (analyse that). The reaction to the costume amongst party guests was fairly unanimous, “get away from me you creepy bastard”. Come to think of it, being a therapist I often get that response at parties.

 

 

This got me thinking. Why are clowns - which, let’s remember, are supposed to be funny and entertaining - so damn freaky? After much thought I came to realise that the image of a clown, particularly one that we suspect of possessing murderous intent, is a composite of many of our core primal fears.

 

 

First and foremost we need to draw attention to the fact that unlike Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse the image of a clown does not reference anything from the known world, as such it is likely to trigger our primal fear of the unknown - he is an unknown person with an alien facade.

 

 

This ‘unknown’ invariably triggers our queasy unease with uncertainty and unpredictability, which itself goes hand in hand with the intense and uncomfortable physiological responses we experience in relation to shock and surprise, a central axis of the clown's act. I’ll personally never forget being a young child held in my father’s arms as we walked through a bustling town centre when a clown popped up and burst a balloon right in my little face whilst laughing insanely - I will hunt you down buddy!

 

 

Interestingly, children are highly sensitive and reactive to a familiar body type combined with an unfamiliar face. Researchers into clown phobia note a correlation with something known as the uncanny valley effect. The uncanny valley effect is a hypothesis in the field of robotics and 3D animation that seeks to describe how human replicas that look and act almost, but not quite perfectly, invoke revulsion among human observers.

 

 

Then of course there is the fear of masks and disguises and their tribal origins, and the frustration that comes with the inability to read someone’s facial expressions and determine their motives and behaviour. Similarly the ghost white face of the clown is reminiscent of supposed paranormal entities and things from the ‘other side’ that lurk in the darkness. His laughing/sad face promotes the idea of a tortured soul lost in the infinite ocean of madness and insanity. To make matters worse, real-life serial killers and peadophiles have actually been performing clowns and have used the disguise to facilitate their sadistic acts, as in the case of John Wayne Gacy, who was the inspiration behind the character of Pennywise in Stephen King’s Horror novel It.

 

 

Let’s organise those anxiety arousing elements into a list:

 

 

• The Fear of the Unknown

• Uncertainty and Unpredictability

• The Element of Shock and Surprise

• Imposters

• The Anonymity of Masks and Disguises

• The Paranormal

• The Fear of Madness and Insanity

• The Fear of Death

 

 

Given this weighty list of primitive fears it’s clear that the only thing that would make a clown scarier is if you saw it at night time, in the dark, on your own, after failing at something and subsequently being rejected by someone, while on your way to a public speaking engagement. Honestly it just doesn’t bare thinking about… However, seeing as they are a neon chimera of our primal fears, shouldn’t we be thanking clowns for giving us a public opportunity to exorcise our unconscious tensions? In his book and accompanying film Status Anxiety the philosopher Alain De Botton describes how in Italy in the 16th Century they used to carry corpses through the streets to remind people of the ever present reality of death. Perhaps we should fill our high streets with clowns to remind us not to be afraid of living. I’ll leave that for you to decide.

 

 

UPDATE: This article was originally written in 2011. Tell you friends, I prophesied the coming clown craze!

 

 

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Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

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© SEBASTIAN T. EASTWOOD-BLOOM 2018

The Bristol Psychotherapy

& Hypnotherapy Clinic

Home          Symptoms         Treatments         Reviews          About Seb          Fees          Location          Contact 

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

The Bristol Psychotherapy

& Hypnotherapy Clinic

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

© SEBASTIAN T. EASTWOOD-BLOOM 2018

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

why clowns are scary

 

 

Anyone with half a brain knows that clowns are s**t scary! I’m joking of course, I’m not scared of anything. There are however hundreds of thousands of people who have clown phobia - or coulrophobia - to give it its technical term. OK, so maybe I find clowns pretty creepy, but then so do most people I meet.

 

 

Not long ago I attended a friend’s Halloween party dressed as a lurid psychopathic clown (analyse that). The reaction to the costume amongst party guests was fairly unanimous, “get away from me you creepy bastard”. Come to think of it, being a therapist I often get that response at parties.

 

 

This got me thinking. Why are clowns - which, let’s remember, are supposed to be funny and entertaining - so damn freaky? After much thought I came to realise that the image of a clown, particularly one that we suspect of possessing murderous intent, is a composite of many of our core primal fears.

 

 

First and foremost we need to draw attention to the fact that unlike Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse the image of a clown does not reference anything from the known world, as such it is likely to trigger our primal fear of the unknown - he is an unknown person with an alien facade.

 

 

This ‘unknown’ invariably triggers our queasy unease with uncertainty and unpredictability, which itself goes hand in hand with the intense and uncomfortable physiological responses we experience in relation to shock and surprise, a central axis of the clown's act. I’ll personally never forget being a young child held in my father’s arms as we walked through a bustling town centre when a clown popped up and burst a balloon right in my little face whilst laughing insanely - I will hunt you down buddy!

 

 

Interestingly, children are highly sensitive and reactive to a familiar body type combined with an unfamiliar face. Researchers into clown phobia note a correlation with something known as the uncanny valley effect. The uncanny valley effect is a hypothesis in the field of robotics and 3D animation that seeks to describe how human replicas that look and act almost, but not quite perfectly, invoke revulsion among human observers.

 

 

Then of course there is the fear of masks and disguises and their tribal origins, and the frustration that comes with the inability to read someone’s facial expressions and determine their motives and behaviour. Similarly the ghost white face of the clown is reminiscent of supposed paranormal entities and things from the ‘other side’ that lurk in the darkness. His laughing/sad face promotes the idea of a tortured soul lost in the infinite ocean of madness and insanity. To make matters worse, real-life serial killers and peadophiles have actually been performing clowns and have used the disguise to facilitate their sadistic acts, as in the case of John Wayne Gacy, who was the inspiration behind the character of Pennywise in Stephen King’s Horror novel It.

 

 

Let’s organise those anxiety arousing elements into a list:

 

 

• The Fear of the Unknown

• Uncertainty and Unpredictability

• The Element of Shock and Surprise

• Imposters

• The Anonymity of Masks and Disguises

• The Paranormal

• The Fear of Madness and Insanity

• The Fear of Death

 

 

Given this weighty list of primitive fears it’s clear that the only thing that would make a clown scarier is if you saw it at night time, in the dark, on your own, after failing at something and subsequently being rejected by someone, while on your way to a public speaking engagement. Honestly it just doesn’t bare thinking about… However, seeing as they are a neon chimera of our primal fears, shouldn’t we be thanking clowns for giving us a public opportunity to exorcise our unconscious tensions? In his book and accompanying film Status Anxiety the philosopher Alain De Botton describes how in Italy in the 16th Century they used to carry corpses through the streets to remind people of the ever present reality of death. Perhaps we should fill our high streets with clowns to remind us not to be afraid of living. I’ll leave that for you to decide.

 

 

UPDATE: This article was originally written in 2011. Tell you friends, I prophesied the coming clown craze!

 

 

Back to Blog Contents