Are you afraid of clowns? Apparently a lot of people are. Well, according to my ongoing imprecise, could well be completely wrong but it’s what I’ve found survey, anyway. If you are afraid of clowns, then you have Coulrophobia. So now you know. Feel better? Oh well. Hell, it might come up in a trivia quiz, you never know. Apparently the term isn’t used in psychology, but that’s the common name for the condition.
Aberrant clowns are plentiful in modern media. Mark Dery, an American author, lecturer and cultural critic, devoted a chapter in his book The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink, to the subject of disturbing clowns. It’s called Cotton Candy Autopsy: Deconstructing Psycho-Killer Clowns. Among other examples, he discusses the Pogo the Clown persona of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Bobcat Goldthwaite’s 1992 movie Shakes the Clown, about a clown suffering from depression and alcoholism, Pennywise, the shape-shifting monster in the novel It, by Stephen King, which often appears as a clown, and Jungian and historical writings on the images of the fool in myth and history. Dery asserts in conclusion that the Evil Clown is an icon for our times. Now there’s something to think about.
There are, of course many, many more examples of bad or evil clowns in written and visual media, and then there are the sleazy clowns, such as Krusty the Clown on The Simpsons.
But where does the fear of clowns arise from to begin with? A study at the University of Sheffield found that children are frightened of clown themed decorations in hospitals. Psychologists that have addressed the issue seem to concur that the condition probably develops out of some traumatic incident in childhood that is in some way associated with a clown. Interviewers of people with Coulrophobia have reported that circuses are often the first incidence of fear arising around the presence of clowns. I find this interesting given that most major old style circuses that I’ve seen advertised tend to feature clowns prominently in their advertising.
A study by Joseph Durwin, titled Coulrophobia & The Trickster found that there is a widespread hostility to the idea of evil clowns which transcends just the phobia alone and that this hostility probably arises from modern culture. He goes on examine the nature of clowning in general and the anti-social aspects that underpin it. Clowns, after all, do things that people aren’t supposed to do, or shouldn’t do, and there is speculation that this could be a major aspect of the phobia. The breaking of rules and regulations that are supposed to be all in good fun and meant to induce laughter could be taken as threatening gestures by some, especially children in the years where they are being taught right from wrong. If they take the clowns literally, it could be a source of fright, leading to the phobia.
Certainly this idea underpins the portrayals of bad clowns in books and movies. If children are exposed to these depictions and then see clowns at a circus, it’s not a great leap to fear being the reaction. British horror writer Ramsey Campbell has weighed in on this idea saying the recurring theme of the frightening clown goes back at least to Lon Chaney Jr., who reportedly said, “There is nothing laughable about a clown in the moonlight.” Campbell concludes, “It is the fear of the mask, the fact that it doesn’t change and is relentlessly comical.”
Bart Simpson’s line “can’t sleep, clown will eat me” has sold millions of tee shirts with the saying on it, insuring that Coulrophobia will continue to be with us for a long time to come.