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Why Are Clowns So Scary?

A brief overview of coulrophobia.

This week saw the opening of the film sequel to IT ("Chapter Two"). This is one of over 50 films to date rooted in individuals' fear of clowns, known as coulrophobia. Obviously this is not my specialist area and the only article I’ve ever written about clown psychology was a previous article on coulrophilia (i.e., sexual arousal from clowns) and an article on the psychology of fancy dress. However, over the past few years I've appeared in a number of stories about the British police being inundated with clowns scaring people by jumping out and chasing them. (See stories in which I was quoted in the New York Times, Asian Express, and Indian Express.) A BBC story for which I was interviewed claimed:

“Police across England have been called to dozens of incidents in which pranksters dress as ‘creepy clowns’ to deliberately scare people. The culprits are said to be following a trend that started in the US [and has spread to other countries, including Canada, Australia and France]. A 30-year-old man was arrested in Norwich after someone dressed as a clown jumped out from behind a tree and “terrified” a woman in a public park. On Sunday Thames Valley Police said it had been called to 14 incidents in 24 hours. In County Durham on Friday, four children were followed to school by a man in a clown outfit who was armed with what turned out to be a plastic machete. In a separate clowning caper in County Durham on Friday, police in Peterlee posted a photo on their Facebook page of items including two masks confiscated from two 12-year-olds who officers said had gone to a primary school to scare children. Meanwhile, in Kidlington, Oxfordshire, a man dressed as a clown and carrying a baseball bat was reported to have chased a 10-year-old child through a park. Gloucestershire Police said it had received six reports of ‘clowns’ behaving suspiciously or carrying knives. In one instance a child was followed. A cyclist in Eastbourne, Sussex, was left ‘shaken’ after someone dressed as a clown jumped out from a bush brandishing what he believed was an offensive weapon. And in Sudbury, Suffolk, a boy was chased by “several people dressed as clowns”.

As there had been little academic research in coulrophobia, I felt I was as qualified as anyone to speculate on the roots of the phobia. I told the BBC that clowns tend to be scary because of their exaggerated looks and evil representation in films. Obviously, the vast majority of individuals are not scared of clowns in a day-to-day context but a clown’s face has become part of a scare culture. I noted that there is a stereotype of the nasty, evil, eerie clown. If you look at clowns you tend to find that part of their face or feet are exaggerated, they have huge noses, scary mouths, huge elongated shoes, and wildfire hair. I also made reference to the cinematic trope of the evil clown. From Heath Ledger's Joker in Batman to the clown in Stephen King‘s It, these clowns or characters with clown faces are either killers or are doing really nasty things. Even if you have not come into contact with clowns, you’re likely to be influenced by what you see in television and films. According to the Wikipedia entry on coulrophobia:

"Clown costumes tend to exaggerate the facial features and some body parts, such as hands and feet and noses. This can be read as monstrous or deformed as easily as it can be read as comical. The significant aberrations in a clown’s face may alter a person’s appearance so much that it enters the so-called ‘uncanny valley’ in which a figure is lifelike enough to be disturbing, but not realistic enough to be pleasant—and thus frightens a child so much that they carry this phobia throughout their adult life. According to psychology professor Joseph Durwin at California State University, Northridge, young children are ‘very reactive to a familiar body type with an unfamiliar face. Researchers who have studied the phobia believe there is some correlation to the uncanny valley effect. Additionally, the fact that much clown behavior is ‘transgressive’ (anti-social behavior) can create feelings of unease."

A couple of weeks ago, after a spate of U.S. clown attacks, Professor Frank McAndrew wrote an article for The Conversation on the psychology of what creeps us out about clowns. He compared his own thinking to that of Canadian psychologist Rami Nader. More specifically, Professor McAndrew noted:

"[Dr. Nader] believes that clown phobias are fueled by the fact that clowns wear makeup and disguises that hide their true identities and feelings. This is perfectly consistent with my hypothesis that it is the inherent ambiguity surrounding clowns that make them creepy. They seem to be happy, but are they really? And they’re mischievous, which puts people constantly on guard. People interacting with a clown during one of his routines never know if they are about to get a pie in the face or be the victim of some other humiliating prank. The highly unusual physical characteristics of the clown (the wig, the big red nose, the makeup, the odd clothing) only magnify the uncertainty of what the clown might do next."

No-one knows why the spate of clown attacks occurred in the UK (or elsewhere). My own take on it is that the flurry of media stories about the phenomenon probably contributed to some copycat cases (which then led one news story to the headline based on my radio interview with Talk Radio: “Killer clown attacks: Leading professor says sensationalist media has fuelled ‘Clownpocalypse’”) although there were likely to have been other reasons, given that Halloween was coming up.

As a psychologist I am far more interested in why someone would attack others dressed as a clown in the first place.

Here, I see a lot of similarities with online behaviour in that dressing up as a character is like the taking on of another persona when people are online carrying out antisocial acts such as trolling. While the psychological core and personality of an individual online or dressed up in an outfit with a mask (or thick hideous make-up) is still that same person, the anonymity provided by the nature of online interactions and the anonymity provided by wearing a different face or mask both lead to the person becoming more disinhibited and doing things that they would never do in a normal face-to-face situation. In essence, such people are taking on other identities – at least momentarily – and carrying out anti-social acts that they would normally not do. However, there will also be those who carry out such attacks because they get crazed and/or sadistic pleasure from doing so. Their motives may be as simple as boredom, revenge and/ or just wanting to ‘have a laugh’ – the main motives that have been found in my own research among people who troll online.

The spate of clown attacks died down as quickly as they came about and I’m sure that as the media reporting decreases there will be less of such attacks. At least I hope so.

References

BBC News (2016). ‘Creepy clown’ police warnings as craze spreads. October 10, Located at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-37605841

Dolan, L. (2016). Killer clown attacks: Leading professor says sensationalist media has fuelled ‘Clownpocalypse’. Talk Radio, October 11. Located at: http://talkradio.co.uk/news/killer-clown-attacks-leading-professor-says…

Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Adolescent trolling in online environments: A brief overview. Education and Health, 32, 85-87.

Hayden, D. (2016). ‘Creepy clowns’ craze: Professionals hit out at pranksters. BBC News, October 11. Located at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-37611993

McAndrew, F.T. (2016). The psychology behind why clowns creep us out. The Conversation, September 29. Located at: https://theconversation.com/the-psychology-behind-why-clowns-creep-us-o…

Thacker, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An exploratory study of trolling in online video gaming. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 2(4), 17-33.

Wikipedia (2016). Coulrophobia. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coulrophobia

Wikipedia (2016). Uncanny valley. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley

Zidbits (2011). Why are some people afraid of clowns? October 20. Located at: http://zidbits.com/2011/10/why-are-some-people-afraid-of-clowns/

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