Clowns. Many people agree that they’re pretty creepy. But why? Turns out there’s a psychological reason and even a scientific name for this fear. This name is Coulrophobia: “coulro” coming from the ancient Greek word for “one who goes on stilts” and phobia for fear. So why do clowns elicit a feeling of dread in so many people?
Arthur Pennington murdered 8 children between 1922-1929. He dressed as a clown to lure them out of sight. pic.twitter.com/w0AMOz4vfr
— Conspiracy & Truth (@ConspiracyPix) January 5, 2018
One theory invokes the “uncanny valley” effect which is when things that impersonate humans elicit feelings of eeriness and revulsion. Think ventriloquist dummies and 3D world animations. In other words, clowns have human faces and bodies, but they don’t act like humans. Their elevated mood and exaggerated facial expressions aren’t “normal.” They’re also unpredictable. They might spray water on your face with a flower or zap you with a buzzer during a handshake.
They don’t exactly have a trustworthy reputation. Clowns made their first appearance in the medieval times, and even then they possessed a dark air about them. In Shakespeare’s writings, fools and jesters were often linked to death and dark truths. And then there’s notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy who used to dress up as a clown named “Pogo” for children’s birthday parties and fundraising events, earning him the moniker “the killer clown.” The real clincher in this killer clown trope is of course Pennywise from Stephen King’s It, one of the most unforgettable movie villains of all time.
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More recently, 2016 and 2017 saw a bunch of creepy clown sightings across the world in places like the woods outside of schools and alongside deserted stretches of road. The first report came from South Carolina when a 9-year-old claimed that 2 men dressed as clowns tried to lure him into the woods. The sightings spread across the U.S. and Canada and even reached as far as the U.K. and Australia.
So why are clowns a fixture at children’s events? It’s because adults are really the ones that are most freaked out by clowns. Children don’t know enough about social norms to be afraid of them yet. Think about that the next time you’re at McDonald’s.
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However, kids can still find clowns scary in some circumstances. While they may want to see one at a party, they aren’t so keen on clown decorations. One 2008 study that took place at the University of Sheffield, England, asked 250 children between the ages of 4-16 what kind of images they disliked the most. Kids of all ages reported that clowns were scarier than any other kind of image. This study prompted at least one hospital in Britain to redecorate their children’s ward, removing all clown imagery.
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So, if you do have a fear of clowns, how do you get over it? Rami Nader, a Canadian psychologist, told NBC that it is like any phobia. “What we need to do is gradually come into contact with that thing – whether it’s spiders or heights, whatever you’re afraid of – and learn to cope with the anxiety, learn to recognize that what you’re afraid of won’t actually harm you.” Like any other phobia, getting over a fear of clowns isn’t easy. It takes time, and there are many hurdles along the way.
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