Monday, November 4, 2013

Apple #659: Fear of Clowns

For Halloween this year, I dressed up as Raggedy Andy.

Raggedy Ann and Andy were dolls that came to life in books from the 1920s. They had nice little adventures like getting in pillow fights and roasting marshmallows and having the marshmallows get stuck to their soft cotton hands.
(Image from

You could also get soft, stuffed dolls made to look like the drawings in the books. This is a Raggedy Andy doll. 
(Photo from I Found My Childhood on eBay)

My costume was one my mom had and gave to me several years ago. I had worn it once about 10 years ago, and I thought this year, why not break it out again. Nobody I know now has ever seen me wear it, so it will be new to them.

Admittedly, my costume is only an approximation of the original doll. Also, while I remembered there were triangles on the face, I remembered them wrong so when I painted my face, it didn't quite look like Raggedy Andy's. The result was, people assumed I was a regular old clown.

And several people said they were therefore afraid of me--or my costume.

Really? THIS is scary?

The number of people who said they were afraid of my costume was rather surprising. More people said they were afraid of me this year than when I wore the costume 10 or so years ago.

First of all, I personally don't get the whole fear of clowns thing. It's a person wearing make-up and baggy clothes. Wooo, scary. So I'm wondering, especially since more people seem to be afraid of clowns--or more people are saying they're afraid of clowns--is this like bacon? I mean, is fear of clowns increasing the same way love of bacon has become so widespread, if you say "bacon," 15 people will start drooling immediately? Is fear of clowns becoming that pervasive, so now if you were to say, "Hey, a clown," 15 people would duck under a table and another 5 would say, "Totally. Love the bacon. Hate the clowns."

  • There is a name for a phobia of clowns. But first, let's get our levels of fear straight.
  • There's "I don't think clowns are funny." This is me. Not afraid, but not entertained, either. Clown humor is slapstick. "Oh! Look at my enormous shoes! Oh, I fell down! Oh, I squirted water out of my stupid fake daisy!" To me, slapstick is more annoying than funny. Like America's Funniest Home Videos. Physical humor and nothign more. Boring after about 30 seconds, annoying after about a minute. 
  • The next level is, "I don't like clowns." At this level, you just don't care for them. You wouldn't put a clown picture on your wall, you might even be tempted to punch such a picture, but you wouldn't run and hide from it either. 
  • Next we have, "I'm afraid of clowns." You see a clown and you get a little heart-poundy, a little nervous. You're not really sure what that clown is going to do, and you don't really want to find out. If you saw a clown in a haunted house, you would get scared, solely by virtue of the fact that it is a clown. 
  • Finally we have clown phobia. You see a clown and your heart races. You break out in a sweat, your hands shake, you feel nauseous, you have trouble breathing, you feel panicky. Full-blown, out of control fear. 

(Image posted by BlackTequilaKiss at

  • People say the phobia-word for this is coulrophobia. Literally, that means fear of stilt-walkers. Because apparently the Greeks, from whom we get most of our -phobia words, don't have a word for "clown." 
  • It isn't a term accepted by any psychological association, nor is it in the DSM-5, nor is it in a lot of dictionaries. Apparently the word has only been around since the 1980s or so -- which suggests to me that this fear of clowns thing may be recent in origin. 
  • But for some people, fear of clowns can be quite real. Like a fear of spiders, or a fear of snakes, or any other phobia, it can affect people's lives in very definite ways. Some people will even avoid eating at McDonald's because they don't want to see any images of Ronald McDonald. 

To me, if anything, this is only mildly annoying. But for some people, this instills fear.
(Photo from the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Four States)

  • Very guessy estimates say clown phobia is much more prevalent in Western society, and that anywhere from 5% to 12% of adults have some fear of clowns. 
  • People who have studied this say that what instills the fear is the fact that the faces are painted. 
  • The reason people -- especially children -- find this disturbing is because even babies know that the painted-on face is not an authentic expression of what the person under the make-up is actually feeling. The children & babies (and adults) are reacting to the fact that the face paint is telling an obvious lie. 
  • Because the paint says one thing and the person's demeanor says another, you don't trust them. And since they seem to be trying very hard to tell you they're happy, that makes you even more suspicious. Why the heck do they want so much for you to believe that they're happy? What else are they going to do that I'm supposed to ignore and think that means happiness too?
  • So instead of happy giggling children, you get suspicion, distrust, and fear. 
"We found that clowns [were] universally disliked by children," said one researcher who studied whether using clown images to decorate a children's hospital ward would be a good idea. 

Children actually don't like clowns -- something to consider the next time you're planning a child's birthday party.  
(Photo from Rap Genius)

  • OK, this is making sense. I'm not going to feel your clown-fear with you, but now I understand where it's coming from. 
  • But this raises other questions. Are people just as afraid of sad clowns? Do people think the sad clowns are also lying and are therefore suspicious? Or are they not afraid of fake sadness in the same way they're afraid of fake happiness? 
    • (Personally, I loathe sad clown art. Detest it. I don't think you can even call it art.  I think you call it a cultural splinter in the eye. So I am not going to post any images of sad clowns.)
  • Some people say they are less afraid of sad clowns than happy ones. But other people say the sad clowns disturb them even more than the happy ones. Still others are not afraid of the happy ones at all, but are only afraid of the sad ones. 
  • Thus, apparently it's not just the fake-happy emotions that people distrust, it's any fake emotions. (researchers agree with this).  Perhaps which fake-ness you distrust more may depend on your personal make-up (pun), or perhaps on your own childhood experiences.

I wondered if people were afraid of rodeo clowns too. I thought maybe not, since they help the rodeo contestants. But this guy, Keith Isley, who is a rodeo clown -- they prefer now to be called bullfighters -- said one of the parts of his job is helping people get comfortable with his clown-ness. One of the ways he does that is to let them see him put on his make-up, and even let them put some of it on him themselves.
(Photo by Michael Cavazos at the Longview News-Journal)

  • People who treat patients for clown phobias -- I'm talking the debilitating, affects-your-life level of fear -- say that it's similar to lots of other phobias: clown phobia originates at some point in childhood, when the child experienced something negative or traumatic involving a clown. The person never had cause or reason to let go of the fear, so it only intensified over time. 
  • The best way to treat clown & any phobia is to bring the person into contact with the feared thing gradually, a little bit more over time. The person can cope with the anxiety at relatively low levels while they learn that the thing they're afraid of won't actually harm them. 
  • Popular culture may actually not be helping that effort. 
  • There have been lots of happy clowns that people used to like, or seemed to like.  There was Clarabell the Clown, who was Howdy Doody's silent sidekick. (The first guy who played Clarabell was Bob Keeshan, who later became Captain Kangaroo.)

L to R: Buffalo Bob, Howdy Doody, and Clarabell the Clown
(Photo from The Fifties Web)

  • There was also Bozo the Clown, who was so popular by the mid-1960s that there was a 10-year wait to get tickets to see his show.
We had a Bozo the Clown show at our local TV station.  One of the meteorologists played him.  I got to be on his show with the rest of my Bluebird troop.  He had a game where a lucky kid from the audience had to throw a ball into one of several circles, with the best prizes in the farthest circle. My friend Jill got to be the lucky kid, and she won a huge container of Tootsie Rolls that lasted her 2 years.  I don't remember anyone ever saying they were afraid of Bozo.
(Photo from Infinity Dish TV Blog)

  • But then came a whole raft of evil clowns.  The first one was the real thing.
  • John Wayne Gacy, a real-life guy who dressed up as a clown for children's parties and was also a serial rapist and murderer. 
  • Then came the movies:
    • Poltergeist (1982) - a boy's clown doll comes to life and tries to drag him under the bed
    • It (1986) - Stephen King's Pennywise the Clown is actually a demon who attacks children
    • Clownhouse (1989) - escaped mental patients disguise themselves as clowns and murder-slaughter all sorts of people in a rural town
    • Batman movies featuring the Joker. Jack Nicholson's Joker looked, to me, like Jack Nicholson with green paint on his face.  Heath Ledger's Joker, on the other hand, is a different story.  He is scary-looking, for sure. (But isn't that what you want in a villain?)
    • Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988) - OK, really?  Some people include that one their list of scary clown movies?  The thing was a spoof!

Their weapons are popcorn that turn into spider-like insects, and cotton candy that gets spun into a suffocating cocoon of sugar-death. There's also something about the whipped cream pies that I can't remember.
(Photo from Pop-Break)

  • But you see the point.  Movies have taken the clowns-can-be-unsettling thing and worked and worked it until they made clowns into fear-worthy icons.
  • So I see it as no accident that, with the influx of evil clown movies beginning in the 1980s, that's when we started to see the coulrophobia word appear.  And the people who said they were afraid of my costume?  They were not people who grew up with Howdy Doody, but younger.  People who would have seen those evil-clown movies in the theaters when they came out.
  • My final question is this: those of you who are afraid of clowns, are you afraid of KISS too?  Were you afraid of them in their heyday?  Eh, probably the people who are afraid of clowns didn't make it far enough into the entry even to see this question.

KISS: scary clowns or rock icons? They wore white face paint too, you know.
(Photo from Huff Post Entertainment)

NPR, Fear of Clowns: Yes, It's Real, August 6, 2013
Linda Rodriguez-McRobbie, The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary, Smithsonian Magazine, August 1, 2013
Krystal D'Costa, Why Are We Afraid of Clowns? Scientific American, October 31, 2011
Bill Briggs, No laughing matter: Fear of clowns is serious issue, NBC News, April 20, 2012
Joseph Durwin, Coulrophobia & the Trickster, Trinity University
Coulrophobia: the Fear of Clowns
World Wide Words, Coulrophobia
Charles Bryce, 2011 Stock Show & Rodeo: Clowning Serious Business, San Angelo Standard-Times,February 12, 2011



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