We Asked Scientists Why Clowns Freak Us the Hell Out

Since there's a new It coming out, we thought we'd get mentally prepared.

by Maggie Puniewska
Apr 26 2017, 4:00pm

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What's more terrifying than terrorism? Clowns. Can anything freak people out more than biological warfare? Um, yeah—it's clowns. Are clowns scarier than dying? For some people, transitioning to the afterlife may be preferable to an encounter with Bozo.

Sound melodramatic? Maybe, but those were the actual findings from a recent Vox analysis that looked into the fear of clowns, or coulrophobia. In their 2016 poll of nearly 2,000 Americans, 42 percent of participants were afraid of the circus characters; those numbers checked out with Chapman University's latest survey of fears, in which clowns topped the charts.

Coulrophobia also outranked anxieties surrounding things like random shootings, the collapse of the electrical grid, and devastating natural disasters, per the Chapman data. Granted, the study method was far from perfect. It essentially two took different sets of results and equated them, which can be very misleading, since if people had to choose between clowns and ISIS in one single survey, they might rank their scares differently. Nonetheless, the poll reveals that the makeup-slathered, red-nosed comedians aren't exactly the crowd-pleasers they're trained to be.

But how can such a friendly individual—one that gives out balloons and uses laughter to bring joy to terminally sick children!—make people turn and run in the opposite direction? Experts think there are a couple of aspects to clowns that make them particularly freaky. "There's a certain risk of feeling too vulnerable, as clowns are often unpredictable," says Friedemann Schaub, a clinician and author of The Fear & Anxiety Solution. "When you go to the circus, you don't know if they are going to embarrass you by spraying water on you or pull you up on stage and make fun of you. There's a sense of power that the clown holds over you—it's like the jester in the king's court, who was the only person who could tell the truth and potentially expose you."

The whole clown getup—the exaggerated features, the colorful face paint, the red nose—doesn't help either. "The clown face violates the normal parameters of what we are programmed to recognize in a safe facial expression," says Bruce Cameron, a licensed counselor in Dallas who has treated several patients with coulrophobia. "The experience is disturbing or shocking because the brain now has to take extra steps to decode the meaning of the face to discern if it is friendly or hostile. The makeup makes it harder to recognize emotions or intent."

Schaub adds, "From an evolutionary perspective, when something is unrecognizable like the clown face or unpredictable like a clown's actions, we don't want to approach or interact with it because our brain is sensing that it could be dangerous." On top of that, the uptick in killer clown tropes and the media's fascination with the creepy clown thing—a remake of Stephen King's It is due later this year—further perverts the jester's image and increases anxiety. "People learn a lot from the media," says Martin Antony, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto the author of The Anti-Anxiety Workbook. "If clowns are constantly portrayed in an evil manner or shown chasing after people, viewers can start to associate them with negative, potentially dangerous behaviors." This anxiety can roll over even when they encounter a friendly one, say, at a child's birthday party. "Usually once people have connected a certain stimulus with a fear, they typically respond the same way across the board," Antony says.

Of course, the degrees of clown fear can vary, so it's also important to distinguish between people who just have an aversion to clowns versus those who have full-on coulrophobia, Antony says. "Phobias are reactions in which a specific trigger produces an extremely intense response," he says. "So if you see a clown, and you are truly phobic, your heart will pound, you might start sweating, get nauseous, and feel a sense of panic or dread—you will want to escape the situation as quickly as possible." Someone who just finds clowns unpleasant, on the other hand, might go through the carnival and feel uncomfortable when they see one, but they won't make the extra effort to bypass the situation.

Researchers are eager to explore how and why coulrophobia comes up because there's currently not much science to go on. A recent study published two months ago in the European Journal of Pediatrics was the first study to define coulrophobia and take stock of it, specifically in kids who were visited by a hospital clown during an appointment. (To date, there isn't any research that looks at the fear in adults). Out of the 1,160 Israeli children that scientists observed, 1.2 percent were afraid of the clown, displaying behaviors like crying or hiding behind a parent. Study author Noam Meiri admits it's a small number, but believes the research is a stepping stone for future work. "It's important to examine this aspect of care because medical clowns are quite common," he says. "In Israel they're pretty much in every hospital."

Some experts also think that coulrophobia itself needs to be better defined. In a letter to the editor, Dutch researchers questioned whether Meiri's use of the word "irrational" in the definition is appropriate. "There is currently no specific definition for coulrophobia in the WHO's ICD-10 nor in the APA's DSM-V, therefore future studies on this phenomenon will need consensus among researchers on the definition," says Lennard van Venrooij, a researcher at the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

He is also the author of a study that investigates hospital clowns from the perspective of pediatricians and pediatric residents. "We worry that saying coulrophobia is always 'irrational' might be too harsh…Calling [it] irrational when they feel danger could prevent them from seeking treatment."

Fortunately, if you do go that route, things like cognitive behavioral therapy and neurolinguistic programming (NLP) can help. "The mind is extremely flexible, it just needs to be fed new information," Schaub says. "Working with a therapist to change negative beliefs and introduce new, more accurate ones like 'clowns are harmless' is really effective." Just maybe keep your distance from the movie theater in a few months. 

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