Fear of Clowns
Anything bad is unpleasant or dangerous in some way, and bad
clowns are no exception. Thus it makes sense that some people fear
bad clowns. Hating, or being afraid of, clowns is remarkably common—
or at least that’s the perception.
The term coulrophobia—fear of clowns—has come into common
usage only in the past two decades. Now there are numerous support
groups and hundreds of web sites dedicated to the fear. “I Hate
Clowns” sites encourage people to share their fear and hatred online.
There is a web site dedicated to real anti-clown news, which is full of
stories concerning clowns who have abused children, stolen things,
killed, robbed banks, or defrauded normal, God-fearing people. You
can buy anti-clown T-shirts, pins, cards, and hats. There are coulro-
phobic blogs and therapy courses. And they don’t all originate in
America; there are British, German, Scandinavian, and Eastern
European anti-clown sites.
The book argues that “part of the rise of coulrophobia can be blamed
on the increasing use of clowns in slasher horror films. Since the early
1980s, a string of movies has been made in which the central, murderous
character is a clown.” While it is true that evil clowns have become more
popular in recent decades, there’s no clear evidence that fear of clowns is
in fact on the rise; we have no reliable polls or surveys from yesteryear
asking people whether or not they found clowns scary. Simply put,
nobody thought to ask great-great-grandpa if he soiled his britches at
the sight of clowns during the Taft administration. Horse-carriage acci-
dents and tuberculosis were probably of far greater concern to our fore-
fathers than painted circus men in colorful costumes.
It is certainly true that bad clowns have become more common in pop
culture over the past few decades, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect a
corresponding increase in fear of those characters. As any scientist can
tell you, correlation does not imply causation—that is, genuine fear of
clowns may have led to more scary fictional clowns in pop culture, or
more scary fictional clowns in pop culture may have led to more fear of
clowns in real people, or both, or neither. Epidemiologists know that
sometimes a rise in the reported incidence of a condition or disease does
not necessarily reflect any actual increase, but instead can be attributed
to other factors such as newly expanded diagnostic criterion, more accu-
rate testing methods, or simply more public awareness of the issue. Thus
the increase in evil clowns in popular fiction since the 1980s is not a
reliable measure of the public’s fear of clowns. It is perhaps telling that
Scary Clowns, one of only a handful of books on the subject, is a humor
book; its discussion is, at best, tongue-in-cheek and hardly scholarly.
It’s important to draw a distinction between coulrophobia (which, like
all phobias, is an irrational fear) and fear of scary or threatening clowns
(such as Pennywise in Stephen King’s classic It.)
The premise of many
horror films is to make something familiar into something threatening.
A man on the street corner using a chainsaw to cut a fallen tree is not a
threat; that same man chasing you with the chainsaw is a real threat.
Being afraid of a clown making balloon dogs at a circus is a clown pho-
bia; being afraid of that same clown sadistically twisting a live dachshund
into a grotesque, furry tube of spine and dripping gore is not. There is
nothing at all odd, pathological, or unreasonable about fearing a clown
chasing you with a gun or a meat cleaver.
If pop psychology doesn’t provide a clear picture of clown fear, serious
academic research doesn’t help much. Coulrophobia, as such, is essen-
tially nonexistent in the medical and psychological literature. A handful
of professional journal articles mention it in passing, but by far the great
bulk of references are to newspaper and magazine articles. Coulrophobia,
as it is often used, is not actually a recognized clinical phobia; it is instead
a sort of pop culture, pseudoclinical term. While many consider it to be
funny or hip to talk of fearing clowns, genuine phobia of clowns is rare.
Though people who fear clowns may panic in the presence of clowns, the
disorder is considered a phobia instead of a panic disorder unless the
panic also happens unexpectedly (and, for example, the fear generalizes
to anyone in face paint, makeup, or costume).
As for clinical coulrophobes, therapists who treat their client’s fear of
clowns typically do so using standard psychological techniques such as
psychotherapy and habituation (gradually increasing exposure to the
object of fear). In psychology, phobias are a subcategory of anxiety dis-
orders, which affect between 2 percent and 4 percent of the general pop-
ulation. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fifth edition), “The fear or
anxiety is out of proportion to the actual danger that the object or
situation poses, or more intense than is deemed necessary. Although
individuals with specific phobia often recognize their reactions as dispro-
portionate, they tend to overestimate the danger in feared situations. . . .
In the United States, the 12-month community prevalence estimate for
specific phobia is approximately 7 percent to 9 percent [though] rates are
generally lower in Asian, African and Latin American countries (2 per-
cent to 4 percent)” (American Psychiatric Association 2014, 201).
There are no reliable statistics on exactly how many people genuinely
fear clowns, though it doesn’t even crack the top ten most common
phobias—such as arachnophobia (spiders), agoraphobia (open spaces),
claustrophobia (small spaces), and acrophobia (heights)—thus it’s cer-
tainly far below 1 percent of the general population and likely closer to
half that. One Canadian journalist searched in vain for therapists who
had coulrophobic patients: “Amy Janek, head of the anti-anxiety clinic at
the University of British Columbia, has yet to see a clown case. The clos-
est she’s come was a woman who reported being unnerved by a costumed
Easter Bunny in a store. In thirty years, psychologist Ralph Maddess . . .
has seen only one patient with a clown problem. Her anxiety wasn’t
sparked so much by the sight of clowns, but the raucous sounds they
sometimes make” (Gibson 2004).
As for how these fears come about,
Specific phobia sometimes develops following a traumatic event (e.g.,
being attacked by an animal or stuck in an elevator), observation of
others going through a traumatic event (e.g., watching someone
drown), an unexpected panic attack in the feared situation (e.g., an
unexpected panic attack while on the subway), or informational trans-
mission (e.g., extensive media coverage of a plane crash). However
many individuals with specific phobia are unable to recall the specific
reason for the onset of their phobias. Specific phobia usually develops
in early childhood, with the majority of cases developing prior to age
10 years. The median age at onset is between 7 and 11 years, with the
mean at about 10 years.
This phobia criterion sheds light on coulrophobia. Many people do
indeed trace their fear of clowns back to one specific, memorably
unpleasant incident when a clown frightened them, for example at a
circus or birthday party during their childhood. What is of perhaps even
more interest are the other, indirect ways that such a phobia can be cre-
ated: both by seeing other people menaced by clowns and what’s rather
stiltingly referred to as “informational transmission,” and which could
include seeing scary clowns in movies.
When we look at the approximate age range of children who would
have seen scary films containing evil clowns, we can begin to trace back
some of the fears. The film Poltergeist came out in 1982, for example, and
children who were in their early teens at the time would now be in their
early forties and remember the scary clown scene from the film; eight
years later, Generation X kids who were in their early teens when killer
clown Pennywise showed up in the 1990 TV miniseries It would have
their own cultural childhood touchstone of clown fear. With the advent
of VCRs and DVD players, of course, these and later evil-clown films
can scare the hell out of new generations of children.
In these cases people don’t see others being traumatized by evil clowns
in real life, of course—they’re actors in a scary movie. But many kids,
especially between seven and eleven years old, may not fully differentiate
real life from fictional stories the way adults do, and it’s quite likely that
many people’s unpleasant feelings about clowns are often due not to
personal experience but scary movies. Thus the clown fears are created,
at least in part, by a cycle of pop culture influencing children, who then
reinforce and highlight the frightening side of clowns.
The lack of information on fear of clowns specifically may be surpris-
ing given how often the subject is discussed (fear of clowns seems to
come up almost as often as discussions of clowns themselves), but it’s
quite understandable from a clinical psychology perspective. For many
people who suffer from phobias, the best treatment may be no treatment
at all, but instead simply avoiding the subject they fear. If you have a fear
of sharks, for example, you need not spend months or years in time-
consuming and expensive professional therapy to overcome your fear
since you can control your proximity to sharks. Similarly, most people
who genuinely fear clowns don’t bother to seek professional mental help
because clowns are so easily avoided. (It’s like the old joke where a person
visits a doctor and says, “Can you please help me? I get an awful pain in
my neck when I cross my eyes and tilt my head way back and to the left
like this.” The doctor replies, “Sure, I can help. Don’t do that.”)
Fear of clowns exists, of course, but it’s not a medically recognized
serious issue causing significant disruption in most people’s lives.
Clowns—unlike spiders, small spaces, and flatulent coworkers—are eas-
ily avoided; they are typically only found in certain habitats such as cir-
cuses and parties. When they violate those proscribed social and
geographical boundaries, as happened with the Northampton Clown
and his ilk (see chapter 9), that’s when people get upset. Coulrophobia is
simply not a common enough (or serious enough) issue for clinical and
research psychologists to spend a lot of time on—especially as compared
to more common conditions that threaten quality of life, such as depres-
sion, anorexia, psychoses, schizophrenia, and so on.
The fact that bad and scary clowns are so popular suggests that most
people are not in fact frightened of them—after all, if you’re genuinely
terrified of clowns you don’t celebrate them, play with toys and figurines
of them, or get temporary tattoos of them.
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We should never forget Galileo being put before the Inquisition.
It would be even worse if we allowed scientific orthodoxy to become the Inquisition.
Richard Smith, Editor in Chief of the British Medical Journal 1991-2004,
in a published letter to Nature