In the original context, clowns have always been meant to be providers of humor and fun for children and adults alike. We see them at birthday parties, rodeos and carnivals. Yet, they have been generated as an icon of horror in films such as It and, just last year, were used as a costume for crimes in North Carolina. What has caused this image of clowns to change? And why has this change been so effective?
This fear of clowns is particularly prevalent in children. According to Dr. Dan Jenkins, director of PLNU’s M.A. in Clinical Counseling program, children have a natural fear of strangers from an early age. Clowns, in particular, trigger this fear.
“Children naturally fear strangers during certain phases of their development,” said Dr. Jenkins. “What is more strange than a clown? Their faces are distorted with makeup to make them look very different from normal people.”
Speaking from his own childhood experience, Dr. Jenkins felt that clowns were, what he calls, “defective people.”
According to Dr. Max Butterfield, one of PLNU’s professors of sociology, clowns trigger fear in humans due to a phenomenon known as the “Uncanny Valley.” This is a principle that can best be described within the confines of something’s likeness to human kind. As the thing in question slowly increases in similarity to a human, it becomes cuter and more adorable, like a puppy or a kitten. But then when the thing reaches a point right before exact human likeness, it dips down from cute to outright horrifying, like a robot or a clown. Because of their exaggerated features–giant feet and big red nose–clowns appear almost human, but not quite.
This fear of clowns doesn’t exist in children exclusively. The media has begun to latch onto the frightful images, perpetuating them in films like It or shows like American Horror Story.
“Clowns went from having smiley faces, to having exaggerated scary faces and are associated with killing,” said Dr. Gimel Rodgers, Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist. “And generally what causes fear is having a negative experience with an object.”
In the opinion of Julia Farney, senior psychology student at PLNU, the fear of clowns really took off after a serial killer named John Wayne Gacy who, between the years of 1972 and 1978, killed 33 boys while posing as a clown known as “Pogo.” He became known as the “Killer Clown.” Shortly after Gacy was sentenced to death, It by Stephen King came out in 1986.
“Put something that is typically not made to be terrifying into a sudden terrifying light, then everyone is scared of it,” Farney said. “I think that the fear of clowns is a very learned fear. Pop culture has taught us to be scared of them.”
Recently, the president of the World Clown Association (WCA), Pam Moody, has blamed Stephen King and the release of It for the widely negative perception of clowns. This was also, in part, a result of the incidents last year where teenagers in North Carolina would dress up in clown masks to lure kids into the woods. Soon, the clowns took to scarring and harassing people across the country. One clown sighting took place on PLNU’s campus last year.
“It’s sort of the same thing with dolls,” said Farney. “People used to collect dolls–porcelain dolls, American Girl dolls–then Chuckie came out and suddenly everyone was scared of them.”
Still, many find these types of movies appealing and exciting. Dr. Jenkins believes it’s all about the adrenaline.
“Once the feared event is over, there is often a euphoric rebound of positive emotions from the adrenaline and the stress hormones that get secreted during the fearful event,” said Dr. Jenkins. “Watching a scary movie is like a scary dream. Once it’s over, there’s a sudden sense of relief that it didn’t really happen.”
Along with the adrenaline rush, Butterfield explains that part of the appeal of movies like It, is the fact that the viewer is in no real danger. It, in particular, plays on an ironic longstanding fear.
“Taking something that is supposed to be innocent and fun, like a circus clown, and perverting it into a monster that eats children, sets up a huge contrast in psychologically,” said Dr. Jenkins. “It reminds me of the horror movie Life where these astronauts bring back an alien that’s so small and cute at first, but then it quickly turns ugly.”
While children fear clowns because they do not recognize them as friendly, adults fear clowns due to pop-culture and societal perversions.
“Once they see the cute, painted, silly childhood clown transformed into a bloodthirsty murderer, of course people would be afraid,” said Farney. “It’s all about perspective and culture.”