In society, clowns are the objects of intense phobias and the root of many a nightmare. They have inspired horror stories and thriller movies alike. For as long as they have been around, clowns have been feared, but for a variety of reasons. The psychology behind the many causes of Coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns, is fascinating and equally disturbing.
Right now, pop culture is on a craze, consisting mostly of murderous bipeds. With cinematic media like the new knockout movie IT or longstanding television show American Horror Story, killer clowns are all the rage. People are flocking into movie theatres to watch with wide eyes and sickened hearts. Then, subsequently leave with a new-found phobia. Coulrophobia, to be exact. Why is something, which was originally intended to bring children joy, the cause of so much distress?
According to Dr. Max Butterfield, one of PLNU’s top psychology professors, 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 a thing’s likeness to humankind. As the thing in question slowly increases in similarity to humanity it becomes more 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. These objects, or living things, which cannot be identified, find themselves in the uncanny valley. Clowns fall into this pit of fear mostly because of their exaggerated features: giant feet, big red nose, overly vibrant makeup. They are almost human, but not quite.
Besides their exaggerated, dehumanizing features, there is a much bigger reason for the perpetual eeriness associated with clowns. This discomfort can also be found in the bizarre mismatch between their facial expressions and behavior. Inherently, human beings understand others around them through body language. It’s a big part of person-to-person communication. We feel secure in being able to read another’s facial expression because it allows insight into a place we cannot go, the inner workings of the mind. Clowns are almost impossible to read. With a constant smile printed on their face, they prance around perpetually happy, even when, in actuality, they are hurt or sad. It’s this constant state of facial expression that makes clowns, in a sense, unexpressive, and associated with being insane.
Speaking of insanity, clowns by definition, have a twisted sense of humor. Scientifically, it is a comedy subgenre known as “Benign Violations.” An example of such humor could be in the trick flowers many clowns carry around on the coat flaps of their jackets. One second someone is smelling a nice flower, the next moment a jet of water is hitting them in the face. These types of jokes are funny because, in retrospect, they cause no harm. But these delusions can easily be translated into something much more sinister. Say the innocent water is swapped with a substance more acidic in nature. Suddenly your face is melting off instead of being harmlessly splashed. Now, no one is laughing. Except maybe the deranged clown still smiling and dancing about.
So why do children seem to fear clowns, specifically? In the opinion of Dr. Daniel Jenkins, psychology professor at PLNU and Master of Arts in Clinical Counseling, it is because “children naturally fear strangers during certain phases of their development.” And what’s stranger than a clown? Nothing, really.
“Not only are they unfamiliar people,” Jenkins proposes, “…they are unlike any people the child has ever seen before.”
Imagine, if you will, the figure of a giant, painted man standing over you with a constant, unflagging smile upon his face. Children are small and undeveloped, thus so is their depiction of such an unfamiliar creature. Clowns are usually full grown and fully developed men. Unsurprisingly, this can seem a bit daunting. Children tend to be more afraid of clowns than adults because clowns are, in a literal sense, a bigger threat.
As depicted in IT, a cinematic adaption of Stephan King’s best-selling novel, children are the focus for the majority of the movie, adding to the overall fear factor. But why do people go to these movies in the first place? What drives us to watch horrors depicted on the big screen? Dr. Gimel Rodgers, Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist and adjunct professor of psychology, has an interesting theory.
“People enjoy the thrill of the suspense in movies,” said Dr. Rodgers. “It’s a part in our brain, the fight or flight, that says, ‘I need to defend myself,’ let me see how this hero conquers evil.”
Because there is no immediate threat to us, we go to movies to become more familiar with these threats, minus the usual repercussions. Thus, we understand the threats and make them “okay” within our own minds. Movies allow us to figure out what is safe and what is dangerous with no cost to ourselves, which is why the psychology lurking in the background is so fascinating and yet so illogical.