No joke: lots of people suffer from coulrophobia, the fear of clowns.
The same characters we call clowns, who are meant to entertain and make us laugh, surprisingly are the object of a phobia known as coulrophobia. No joke: thousands of humans are afraid of clowns. Let’s break it down. When there is persistent, irrational, intense fear of a specific activity, situation or object, such as clowns, it is labeled a “specific phobia.” Psychologists classify these, under a category called anxiety disorders, as simple phobias.
Have you ever wondered what makes people anxious about clowns?
Your average 1950s “feel-good” circus clown. Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images.
Coulrophobia, the fear of clowns, is a neologism (made-up term) coined to capture the number of people who express having anxiety about clowns. If you stop and think about it, it is not a huge deductive leap to guess why coulrophobia has such a relatively high presence in today’s society. The “evil clown” trope is a staple in modern cinema, most notably in movie characters like Pennywise in Stephen King’s It, the clown doll in Poltergeist, and of course Heath Ledger’s interpretation of Batman’s nemesis, the Joker, in The Dark Knight. Older readers may recall the horrible series of murders in the ’70s by John Wayne Gacy, who played an actual clown for a living.
At a glance, clowning can certainly seem to be a weird profession. What purpose can it serve in today’s entertaining and convenient world of Netflix, Twitter and $0.49 ramen?
Prison clown in a haunted attraction. Photo by serpeblu via Adobe Stock.
However, clowns, jesters and fools have been clowning around for centuries, entertaining the peasants and kings and queens alike by being larger than life. Exaggeration is in a clown’s nature; it’s their job. The colorful clothes, face paint, big red nose and shoes are there to simply put people at ease and make them smile.
But people in masks can create a sense of curiosity and foreboding at the same time. Although most masks are used to raise the adventure and excitement of an event or experience, when they’re sometimes used for a more dubious reason it’s understandable why some people might not trust those who wear them.
Jesters were among the few allowed to openly mock the king through satire or song, which is why many stories show a clown as the wisest or most honest character. Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.
Using overexaggerated facial expressions is a common way to bring levity and playfulness to our lives. To get a frowning person to smile, we mimic a really happy person; to catch someone’s attention, we make funny faces. Professional clowns (and many class clowns) use these behaviors. Most children and adults find humor in such actions, unless they feel others are mocking something they personally are insecure or self-conscious about, such as a big nose or large ears. Such situations serve to twist the original intent of the behavior — namely, to create humor.
Perceptions of clowns, superheroes, movie characters and uniformed civil servants like police officers and firefighters can change from fun to frightening, from enjoyed to detested, from good to bad. The psychology of use principle, coined by renowned psychiatrist Alfred Adler, is the best way to describe how people become afraid of what was intended to be a good thing. The basic idea is that we are not victims of circumstances; rather, we use them to help us accomplish our goals. As feelings emerge, we are able to use them to either forward our goals and dreams or derail and limit them.
Coulrophobia, and the principles we have discussed here, may be nowhere better personified than in the Joker, from the Batman series.
In all honesty, he probably needs no introduction.
The Joker corrupts all the iconic features and actions of a clown: his face paint, the colorful clothing, the evil laugh. His Joker Venom makes its victims laugh themselves to death and contorts their faces into a sickening mad grin. He even has a gag boutonniere that sprays acid instead of water. All the while, he taunts his “king” of Gotham, Batman, in a twisted interpretation of a clown’s purpose. He has no name, no background, no moral compass. With all this in mind, it’s no wonder that pop culture doesn’t associate clowns with happy, fun-loving silliness, especially after the incredible performance of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.
The late great Robin Williams in Patch Adams. Photo by Universal via Getty Images.
Make no mistake: most people do enjoy clowns. Despite the strong internet hatred of clowns (there are sites dedicated to simply hating clowns), the cinematic trope of the killer clown, and even sociopaths like John Wayne Gacy who leveraged others’ enjoyment of clowns for his perversions, research overwhelmingly confirms that clowns can lighten a heavy heart, cheer a frightened child awaiting a medical procedure, or entertain thousands with their seemingly innate desire to make people laugh.
There is no doubt that coulrophobia is and may remain a challenge for people. However, we conclude that we should all keep an appropriate repertoire of clowning around in and among us to fight off the drift toward taking life’s challenges too seriously. After all, life can feel like a circus.