Coulrophobia: the scary clown craze

With an already eventful year full of horrifying events, the “scary clown” craze may be the most haunting yet in the run up to Halloween. As the creepy craze spreads across the UK, clown-related phone calls to police forces are happening more than ever. We’ve already accepted clowns are scary  – but why?

In theory, clowns are supposed to be figures of fun and amusement, using slapstick humour to provoke laughter, not screams and cold sweats. Big smiley faces, party tricks and colourful face paint are not typically associated with intense fears. However, when combined in the form of a clown, they regularly cause the exact opposite reaction to the intended – coulrophobia – an intense fear of clowns.

Not-so-quite human

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It’s the dead look in their eyes…

The reasons for this fear of gaudy, painted clowns is typically attributed to their tendency to set off negative reactions that occur in our brains, namely the ‘uncanny valley’ effect. Remember that clowns are still people – under all that paint and ruffle, they have human bodies and faces – but this is exactly why they freak us out. The ‘uncanny valley’ effect is a phenomenon where things that look human but aren’t quite there look incredibly unsettling to us. This is why those Victorian dolls with the glazed porcelain eyes and Ventriloquist dummies share the same ‘scary’ reputation as clowns do. A pair of googly eyes on a postbox makes for some rather humorous shenanigans but a highly realistic android with an almost-but-not-quite-identical face to that of a real human is super creepy.

One theory is that they make us think of corpses and death (a dead face almost looks like a normal face but ‘behaves’ differently) which should be avoided due to the risk of illness and danger. Whatever the underlying cause, human faces that deviate from normal looks upset us, and clown faces differ in very elaborate ways – the painted on smiles which never match their actual expression, exaggerated eyes and gaudy colours combine to create an unsettling human-like face.

Body shape is also another thing that we, as humans, pay a lot of attention and glean an incredible amount of information from. We are sensitive to things such as posture, stance and gait, with clowns throwing all sense out of the window again with their oversized gestures and excessive tumbling.

Unpredictability of clowns

The whole point of clowns is that they do things which argue with normal behaviour – but unlucky for us, unpredictability is something that causes distrust, apprehension and anxiety in humans. Think about the drunk in the middle of the street at night, yelling and randomly approaching you – these figures in society are ignored and snubbed by those around them because they clearly aren’t conforming to societal norms and are perceived as a possible threat.

This reaction can be even worse if we’re in a social context, as clowns usually are. Humans genuinely fear  being judged and mocked by others, which is why many people actively avoid sitting in the front row at comedy gigs – they don’t want to be spoken to, addressed or possibly ridiculed. This can be scary enough in it’s own right, but add all the upsetting qualities of a clown and you have a potent ingredient for a fear response.

Cultural clowns are scary

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Why so scary?

Even without all this, the scary-clown stereotype is so entrenched in our society that it’s basically the norm, so clowns begin with a disadvantage anyway. The most famous cultural examples of clowns, such as The Joker, are scary and villainous, more likely to become known for murder than slapstick comedy. Much of modern media arguably feeds into our unwarranted fear of clowns and our idiot brains aren’t equipped to deal rationally with these characters.

If you’ve had first-hand experience of the craze and want to share your survival story, or just want to share your opinions, please leave a comment below!

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