Some people experience a mild sense of unease in the presence of clowns, others are creeped out by them and still others are downright fearful of them. There is even a scientific term for fear of clowns: coulrophobia.
Hiding behind garish face paint, dressed outlandishly and walking like a duck is supposed to be funny, but many find the sight of a clown somewhat unsettling if not off-putting.
In fact, a recent study by Knox College social psychologist Francis McAndrew and his student Sara Koehnke on creepiness found that survey respondents thought clowns practice the creepiest profession – taxidermists came second.
Children have always been afraid of clowns, but why do they unsettle adults?
Writing for Business Insider, Dr. Dena Rabinowitz, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders, says there are two things about clowns that inherently lead people to be frightened of them.
“The first is that we rely a lot on facial expressions to understand people and see their motivations. And with clowns you don’t have facial expressions. It’s all under makeup, and it’s fixed. And so there’s a kind of a question of, ‘what’s going on under there?’
“The second thing is people don’t inherently trust people who are always happy and laughing. For a lot of people, the fear of clowns actually is part of a more general fear of masked creatures,” says Rabinowitz.
We don’t like things that are familiar but not exactly right. So clowns look like people, but there’s an oddity to it. There’s something that is a little bit strange and from the norm and that makes us uncomfortable, says Rabinowitz.
If we see clowns in places like in a circus where they belong, that’s often not as scary. But if we see a clown which is already slightly odd and different to us in a place where we don’t typically think they should be like the woods, it’s even scarier, she adds.
Clowns are supposed to be funny and entertaining, but kids are almost universally afraid of clowns. Why is that?
In a University of Sheffield study of more than 250 children between the ages of four and 16, researchers found that a resounding majority expressed a dislike of clowns being part of hospital décor, reports Readers Digest.
According to Valérie De Courville Nicol, professor in the department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University, this may be because clowns, by their very nature, are designed to unsettle, reports Reader’s Digest.
Clowns are meant to unsettle us and this is how
They don’t follow social norms in most respects, breaking all the rules when it comes to acceptable behavior and appearance.
“They act out a lot of what’s supposed to remain hidden, they’re too emotional, their timing is off and their reactions are unanticipated and unusual, De Courville Nicol told Reader’s Digest.
That instability is what freaks us out, and can result in all sorts of emotional reactions, from laughter to terror, she explains.
“The clown turns the world upside down. It shows us what’s taboo, what we’re defending against emotionally and what we’re repressing,” she says. “This makes it powerful in a therapeutic sense, and as a horror device.”
According to Quartz, the fear can be traced back to Sigmund Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’ theory. The theory explains that the word ‘uncanny’ is very similar to the word ‘familiarity.’
For Freud, something’s uncanny if it’s almost familiarly recognizable, but somehow a little bit off Steven Schlozman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School told Quartz.
A clown’s face, with familiar facial features distorted and exaggerated using makeup, represents something uncanny. This eerie familiarity makes us feel uncomfortable.
Crucially, Freud believed that our reaction to creepiness was a primitive fight or flight response, rather than a rational reaction. When you see something creepy, “you do the double take even before you know why you do the double take,” Schlozman told Quartz.
Sigmund Freud theorized that things we find strangely familiar come across as eerie, and referred to this phenomenon as ‘the uncanny.’
There is more.
The eeriness of clowns and the accompanying unease we feel is compounded when the normally benign role associated with clowns (entertaining people) are subverted by malevolent roles (killing people).
“The entire horror movie industry plays with the uncanny. It takes something with which we are familiar and distorts it or places it in the wrong contexts,” De Courville Nicol told Reader’s Digest.
And that’s not the whole story.
The garish paint and outlandish costumes don’t just disguise a physical person, they hide the personality of the person you can’t see. That adds another level of creepiness. We simply don’t know who we are dealing with and that uncertainty is ultimately unsettling.