Coulrophobia. It means a phobia of clowns. Now for some people, even the mention of clowns is enough to trigger a panic attack.

But clowns are supposed to be funny and make us laugh? Why then does the mere thought of them send some people into a state of anxiety? What is it about clowns that causes terror for some? There are several theories that help explain why a person develops coulrophobia – a phobia of clowns.

Why are we likely to develop a phobia of clowns or coulrophobia?

  1. They are unpredictable

First of all, clowns are unpredictable and made to be mischievous. Clowns play tricks, make loud noises and pop up unexpectedly. This immediately puts us on edge, even if we are watching them in a familiar circus setting.

“Right away we are on our guard because they are unpredictable and up to no good.” Frank McAndrew, professor of psychology at Knox College

Humans like normalcy. Things out of whack tend to worry us. The drunk shouting on a train late at night, or a person walking down the high street in their pyjamas. They frighten us.

  1. We cannot see a clown’s face

Secondly, clowns wear a kind of mask that hides their face. Human beings rely on facial expressions so we can understand a person’s intentions. Studies prove we seek out human faces from the moment we are born. It is important to our social development and survival.

Faces teach us about age, gender, emotions, and people’s motivations. It’s crucial in helping us decipher nonverbal clues. Clowns have fixed expressions with large features. We don’t get those important clues from a clown’s face we need.

“And so there’s a kind of a question of, ‘what’s going on under there?’” Dr Dena Rabinowitz, clinical psychologist

  1. Clown’s faces are distorted

Not only are clown’s faces hidden, but their features are also distorted and exaggerated out of proportion.

“The mystery of who is behind the face, the faces are exaggerated, and it’s something that we carry with us that developed early in childhood.” Jason Seacat, associate professor of psychology at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass.

The other reason to find clowns creepy is that we simply don’t trust people that are always laughing and smiling. We are suspicious of those who are super-happy. In fact, one study revealed a majority of participants would rather pair up with a greedy person than an altruistic one. This is because we can easily see a greedy person’s intentions.

If a person is being too nice, we think we are being lulled into a ‘false sense of security so they can take advantage of us’.

  1. Clowns set off our ‘uncanny valley effect’

The final problem is that clowns appear familiar, but they are ever-so-slightly ‘off’. This alerts our brains that something is not quite right. This is our uncanny valley effect. For example, zombies have human-like qualities but do not act like a normal person.

Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term in the 1970s. It is the dip in our emotional response when we encounter something that is almost human. Clowns have human-like qualities, but they look weird. They’re odd and unsettling to us in a similar way that robots, dolls and ventriloquist’s dummies are.

One suggestion is that human faces that are very slightly different from the norm are deeply upsetting because they remind us of death. Therefore, our subconscious warns us to stay away from them.

It’s quite clear why clowns are freaky and creep some of us out. But why do some of us end up with coulrophobia or a phobia of clowns?

Why you have a phobia of clowns or coulrophobia

There are lots of reasons as to why a person might develop a phobia of clowns. As with most phobias, it all starts in childhood.

  • A child is overly sensitive to loud stimuli.

Some children love big bangs and loud surprises. However, others get very upset and scared. It is the same with adults. There are some adults that love roller-coaster rides and others that hate them. If a child is not expecting the raucous antics of a clown, then they could develop a fear of them in later life.

  • The child was too young to know what was going on

There are some things in life that children do not understand until they are much older. Introduce a child to clowns too early and they might not be able to work out what they are. The clowns are a threat and the child will not understand why no one else is worried.

  • Reactions of people around them

If other people are freaking out during a clown performance, running away or screaming, for instance, a child learns by the actions of others that clowns are not safe. However, if everyone is laughing and having a good time, the child will know the clowns are funny and won’t hurt them.

  • The child does not feel secure at home

If a child is unhappy at home, say in an abusive family setting, they won’t feel secure when they leave the house. Then introduce a child to something it does not understand, with no parental support to explain it to them. It’s possible that they might connect this anxiety of their unsettled home-life to clowns.

Of course, clowns themselves are harmless, but this hasn’t stopped the media exploiting our fear of them. You only have to look at Pennywise in Stephen King’s IT or watch a few episodes of American Horror Story to understand why more and more of us are developing a phobia of clowns or coulrophobia.

Not to mention serial killers such as John Wayne Gacy, who famously dressed up as a clown to lure his victims. Now it’s practically normal to associate clowns with murderous intent rather than circus fun and games.

Whatever anyone says about clowns, we all know that phobias are ‘irrational fears’. However, I think I’ve proved there’s nothing irrational about fearing clowns.



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