- A clinical psychologist explains the real reason why people are afraid of clowns
- Clowns are meant to unsettle us and this is how
- Understanding the Creepy Clown Epidemic and How to Help Kids
- Fear of clowns
- Creepy Clown epidemic
- What Can I Do?
- Why Are People Afraid of Clowns?
- Not always harmless
- Fear and loathing
- Terrifying the master of terror
- Coulrophobia: What You Need to Know About Fear of Clowns
- Home remedies
- Enough clowning around why are people afraid of clowns
- The Reason You’re Afraid of Clowns, According to Psychologists
A clinical psychologist explains the real reason why people are afraid of clowns
Some people experience a mild sense of unease in the presence of clowns, others are creeped out by them and still others are downright fearful of them. There is even a scientific term for fear of clowns: coulrophobia.
Hiding behind garish face paint, dressed outlandishly and walking a duck is supposed to be funny, but many find the sight of a clown somewhat unsettling if not off-putting.
In fact, a recent study by Knox College social psychologist Francis McAndrew and his student Sara Koehnke on creepiness found that survey respondents thought clowns practice the creepiest profession – taxidermists came second.
Children have always been afraid of clowns, but why do they unsettle adults?
Writing for Business Insider, Dr. Dena Rabinowitz, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders, says there are two things about clowns that inherently lead people to be frightened of them.
“The first is that we rely a lot on facial expressions to understand people and see their motivations. And with clowns you don’t have facial expressions. It’s all under makeup, and it’s fixed. And so there’s a kind of a question of, ‘what’s going on under there?’
“The second thing is people don’t inherently trust people who are always happy and laughing. For a lot of people, the fear of clowns actually is part of a more general fear of masked creatures,” says Rabinowitz.
We don’t things that are familiar but not exactly right. So clowns look people, but there’s an oddity to it. There’s something that is a little bit strange and from the norm and that makes us uncomfortable, says Rabinowitz.
If we see clowns in places in a circus where they belong, that’s often not as scary. But if we see a clown which is already slightly odd and different to us in a place where we don’t typically think they should be the woods, it’s even scarier, she adds.
Clowns are supposed to be funny and entertaining, but kids are almost universally afraid of clowns. Why is that?
In a University of Sheffield study of more than 250 children between the ages of four and 16, researchers found that a resounding majority expressed a dis of clowns being part of hospital décor, reports Readers Digest.
According to Valérie De Courville Nicol, professor in the department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University, this may be because clowns, by their very nature, are designed to unsettle, reports Reader’s Digest.
(If you’re looking for specific actions you can take to stay in the moment and live a happier life, check out our best-selling eBook on how to use Buddhist teachings for a mindful and happy life here.)
Clowns are meant to unsettle us and this is how
They don’t follow social norms in most respects, breaking all the rules when it comes to acceptable behavior and appearance.
“They act out a lot of what’s supposed to remain hidden, they’re too emotional, their timing is off and their reactions are unanticipated and unusual, De Courville Nicol told Reader’s Digest.
That instability is what freaks us out, and can result in all sorts of emotional reactions, from laughter to terror, she explains.
“The clown turns the world upside down. It shows us what’s taboo, what we’re defending against emotionally and what we’re repressing,” she says. “This makes it powerful in a therapeutic sense, and as a horror device.”
According to Quartz, the fear can be traced back to Sigmund Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’ theory. The theory explains that the word ‘uncanny’ is very similar to the word ‘familiarity.’
For Freud, something’s uncanny if it’s almost familiarly recognizable, but somehow a little bit off Steven Schlozman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School told Quartz.
A clown’s face, with familiar facial features distorted and exaggerated using makeup, represents something uncanny. This eerie familiarity makes us feel uncomfortable.
Crucially, Freud believed that our reaction to creepiness was a primitive fight or flight response, rather than a rational reaction. When you see something creepy, “you do the double take even before you know why you do the double take,” Schlozman told Quartz.
Sigmund Freud theorized that things we find strangely familiar come across as eerie, and referred to this phenomenon as ‘the uncanny.’
There is more.
The eeriness of clowns and the accompanying unease we feel is compounded when the normally benign role associated with clowns (entertaining people) are subverted by malevolent roles (killing people).
“The entire horror movie industry plays with the uncanny. It takes something with which we are familiar and distorts it or places it in the wrong contexts,” De Courville Nicol told Reader’s Digest.
And that’s not the whole story.
The garish paint and outlandish costumes don’t just disguise a physical person, they hide the personality of the person you can’t see. That adds another level of creepiness. We simply don’t know who we are dealing with and that uncertainty is ultimately unsettling.
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Understanding the Creepy Clown Epidemic and How to Help Kids
Halloween is weeks away, but one disturbing trend has already taken over the news and social media: scary clowns.
And it’s not all make-believe; sightings of creepy, threatening, even violent people in face paint and costumes started in South Carolina in late August, when kids reported clowns trying to lure them into the woods.
In the months since there have been sightings of menacing clowns all over the country, and 12 people have been arrested, mostly for making clown-related threats to harm kids at schools or colleges.
Is this a rash of copycat behavior, or an epidemic of hoaxes — or both? Either way, the threat of malice has some schools and communities on edge, and kids are being told not to dress as clowns for Halloween — not even Ronald McDonald. And kids are asking parents whether they should be worried.
Fear of clowns
Clowns, of course, have been a dependable if perplexing source of fear for decades, with horror stories Stephen King’s IT — a new movie is coming out next year — transforming children’s entertainers into sadistic murderers. But the fact is, clowns are frightening to many people even without the help of the King of Horror; they have a specific phobia of clowns, also known as coulrophobia.
Related: Are Kids’ Halloween Costumes Getting Too Adult?
What about clowns inspires such unease?
Some psychologists believe that the fear is in part due to the fact that we cannot read genuine emotion on a clown’s face.
“When you take away our ability to read someone’s expression, it’s disturbing because we don’t know what they’re feeling —are they happy, sad, angry? — what to expect, or how to react,” explains Jerry Bubrick, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating children with anxiety at the Child Mind Institute.
Clowns are also often unpredictable and manic, which can generate apprehension, particularly in children.
“Fear of clowns really starts at a very young age, as young as four or five,” Dr. Bubrick explains. “What usually happens is a child is invited to a birthday party, and when they get there, with no preparation from parents, they see a freaky-looking dude wearing a wig, and big shoes, and a weird outfit, and a big nose, talking in a weird way, doing weird things.”
Some kids love it, he adds, but some get really scared, thrust into a situation with no explanation and expected to it. “And those who are predisposed to anxiety have an even stronger reaction.” In fact, according to Dr. Bubrick, fear of clowns is one of the most common phobias in children.
Related: My 4-Year-Old Was Scared By a Halloween Store. What Can I Do?
Creepy Clown epidemic
As adults, clowns are thought to make us uncomfortable because they are look almost, but not quite, real humans — a hypothesis called the “uncanny valley,” which applies to mannequins and human- robots, too.
Our fear of clowns applies equally to garden-variety examples that aren’t secretly multidimensional ancient evil demons, Pennywise from IT. So it comes as no surprise that media coverage of what’s being called the “Creepy Clown” epidemic has gotten our attention.
Several elementary, middle and high schools went on lockdown last week in response to them new rumors and threats.
And as the media continues to follow the story the risk of “behavioral contagion” increases — that is, copycat behavior inspired by media stories, whether they are true or not.
So children are asking parents what is going on, and whether they should be worried. What do we tell them?
First, it is important for parents to let kids know that most of the chatter about evil clowns is just that —chatter. The lihood of your child seeing or being threatened by a menacing clown (“joke” or otherwise) is very small. If your child sees a clown, it is probably just a clown. Remain attentive to your children’s concerns, but not overly so.
Related: What To Do and Not Do When Children Are Anxious
What Can I Do?
If your child is fearful of a clown attack, or a run-in is reported in your area, here are some tips on how to help your child:
- Be your child’s news source. However you decide to talk about clowns, fear, anxiety and the hysteria that surrounds us today, it’s much better for the child if you’re the one who tells them. You want to be able to convey the facts and set the emotional tone, and pass on any wisdom in a calm and authoritative way.
- Take your cues from your children. Invite them to tell you anything they may have heard about clowns, and how they feel. Give them ample opportunity to ask questions. Be prepared to answer (but not prompt) questions. You want to avoid encouraging frightening fantasies.
- Be realistic. Clowns aren’t “real,” and they’re not dangerous. A clown is usually someone dressed up in a costume with the intention of doing his job and entertaining children and families.
- Be reassuring. Children are ly to focus on whether something frightening or bad could happen to them. So it’s important to reassure your child that it’s highly unly anyone will try to scare or hurt them, and mention the safety measures that have been taken to prevent this kind of thing.
- Be available. If your child is upset, just spending time with him may make him feel safer. Children find great comfort in routines, and doing ordinary things together as a family may be the most effective form of reassurance
Related: How to Avoid Passing Anxiety on to Your Kids
Why Are People Afraid of Clowns?
On Aug. 26, Greenville, South Carolina, resident Donna Arnold told FOX Carolina that she had contacted the Greenville County Sheriff's Office after her son and other children reported seeing a clown near their apartment complex. Arnold said that “about 30 kids” asked her if she had seen the clown.
Bizarre as it sounds, this wasn't the first clown sighting in Greenville County that week, nor was it the last. On Aug.
24, the property manager in Arnold's apartment complex posted a notice warning residents about “a person dressed in clown clothing” who was allegedly trying to lure children into the woods. And on Aug.
31, a 13-year-old boy claimed he saw a man dressed as a clown knocking on the front door of the boy's home. [What Really Scares People: Top 10 Phobias]
The man was wearing “a painted mask with orange hair,” the boy told FOX Carolina. The boy's mother added in an interview that she came home as soon as she could, but when she got there, the clown was gone.
As of Sept. 7, Greenville officials had received reports of four clown sightings within the city limits, Police Chief Ken Miller told reporters at a press conference. Miller didn't crack a smile when he said, “The clowning around needs to stop.”
Whether the Greenville clown, or clowns, pose a threat still remains to be seen. But the unease and fear that clowns can inspire — even in less ominous circumstances — is no laughing matter. Experts told Live Science that many people have negative associations with clowns in general, even though the characters are supposed to bring laughter. Why do clowns evoke such unpleasant emotions?
Not always harmless
Entertainers who don funny outfits and makeup and behave foolishly for the amusement of others have existed for thousands of years. Accounts from ancient Egypt, China and Greece refer to clowns and jesters as members of royal entourages, Smithsonian.com reported. Jesters and fools were also widespread in medieval courts across Europe.
A medieval jester's life wasn't all laughs. “Laughing Fool”, attributed to Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, ca. 1500. (Image credit: PD-US)
But the humor of these characters wasn't always harmless. Secure in their status as jokers, royal jesters could direct amusingly insulting potshots at even the king himself, said Ben Radford, author of “Bad Clowns” (University of New Mexico Press, April 2016), which explores the dark history of these comical buffoons.
“A jester might make a sly joke about how many mistresses a king had or how fat he was,” Radford told Live Science. “Their role allowed them to do that. As the jester, they were the only person in the kingdom who would be given that license.”
By comparison, what is now seen as a typical clown — a circus performer with a wide, painted grin, red nose and oversized shoes — is a relative newcomer, emerging in the last century or so, Radford explained. As to why people might fear clowns, Radford suggested that the heavy, mask- makeup could cause unease because it obscures a clown's true expressions.
“There's something inherently menacing about a masked stranger,” Radford said.
Clowns also have qualities that can appear suspiciously otherworldly, Radford told Live Science. They can cram 20 of their friends into a tiny car. They can unfurl endless scarves or squirt water from floral boutonnieres. So it's no wonder that children, or even adults, in a clown's audience might be inclined to connect the figures to the supernatural.
The demonic Pennywise (Tim Curry) terrorized a group of children in the television miniseries “It” (1990), the horror novel by Stephen King. (Image credit: ABC)
And for some people, the unpredictability of clowns makes them frightening, said Kristin Kunkle, a clinical psychologist at the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders.
“They pull things their sleeves. They blow up balloons and then pop them,” Kunkle said. “They do things that bring on a rush of emotion that some people might be excited about and some people might find overwhelming.”
It probably hasn't helped that in recent decades, a number of horror movies and TV shows have prominently featured gleefully diabolical clowns, such as the costumed alien invaders in “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” (1988), Pennywise from “It” (1990), Killjoy from the ongoing “Killjoy” film series (launched in 2000), and Captain Spaulding from “House of 1000 Corpses” (2003) and “The Devil's Rejects” (2005). [Top 10 Scariest Movies Ever]
Batman's villainous nemesis the Joker is another murderous example of a man whose clown makeup and maniacal grin accompany heinous crimes and evil deeds. The Joker first appeared in the debut issue of the Batman comic book, in 1940, and has since cackled his way across TV screens in both live-action and animated series, and in movies, from “Batman” (1989) to “Suicide Squad” (2016).
But perhaps the scariest example of all is the so-called “Killer Clown”: real-life serial killer and rapist John Wayne Gacy, Jr. A professional clown, Gacy was convicted in 1980 of sexually assaulting and murdering at least 33 young men and boys, many of whom he buried under his house.
Fear and loathing
Any of these terrifying examples could inspire a feeling of at least mild unease around clowns, even in someone who has never had a negative experience with such a character in real life, Radford said.
But some people undergo a more severe reaction: an intense and uncontrollable fear of clowns, also known as coulrophobia.
The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) includes coulrophobia in the “specific phobia” group, code 300.29.
And as a phobia, it is “fairly common,” Kunkle told Live Science, identifying coulrophobia as one of the fears that she and her colleagues ask about when conducting anxiety assessments with new patients. [Top 10 Controversial Psychiatric Disorders]
“If someone has a clown phobia, they might have an anxiety response just from looking at a picture of a clown,” Kunkle said.
Not all clowns are trying to scare you. Pipo (here portrayed by Cor Witschge) was a popular (and nonthreatening) clown character on the Dutch television series “Pipo de Clown” (1958-1980). (Image credit: Dutch Broadcast Foundation)
Clinical phobias differ from typical anxiety in the severity of the person's emotional response to the object of fear, and how much that response affects the person's life, said Scott Woodruff, a psychologist with the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York City.
“For the average person, clowns aren't terribly relevant, so experiencing fear when seeing clowns once or twice a year probably wouldn't merit treatment,” Woodruff told Live Science in an email.
“On the other hand, a father who avoids all child birthday parties just in case a clown shows up very well might want help,” Woodruff added.
Treating a clown phobia — or any type of phobia — is typically done using a technique called exposure therapy, with the patient incrementally increasing his or her exposure to whatever causes the fear, Woodruff explained.
Someone undergoing treatment for a clown phobia wouldn't confront a clown face-to-face on the first day, Woodruff said. Rather, the person might start by looking at pictures of a clown. When the individual felt comfortable with that, the level of challenge would increase. The person could progress to watching movie scenes featuring clowns, or observing a clown from a distance.
“Over time, clients learn they are able to tolerate the distress, which often declines dramatically,” Woodruff told Live Science.
Terrifying the master of terror
But if you're spooked by clowns, you're in good company. Writer Stephen King, famed master of the horror-fiction genre and creator of the demonic clown Pennywise in the novel “It,” told the Bangor Daily News on Sept. 9 that “clowns really can be terrifying.”
King admitted that seeing a clown outside of the character's typical context, such as a circus or a birthday party, could be unnerving — yes, even for him.
“If I saw a clown lurking under a lonely bridge (or peering up at me from a sewer grate, with or without balloons), I'd be scared, too,” King said.
Clown phobias aside, a typical circus or birthday party clown is unly to cause anyone harm. However, officials in Greenville are still on the lookout for people behaving suspiciously while dressed as clowns, and have announced plans to arrest and charge anyone violating standing city ordinances against wearing costumes and identity-concealing masks in public spaces.
Unless, of course, it happens to be Halloween.
Original article on Live Science.
Coulrophobia: What You Need to Know About Fear of Clowns
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When you ask people what they’re afraid of, a few common answers pop up: public speaking, needles, global warming, losing a loved one. But if you take a look at popular media, you would think we were all terrified of sharks, dolls, and clowns.
While the last item may give a few people pause, 7.8 percent of Americans, totally get it, according to a Chapman University survey.
A fear of clowns, called coulrophobia (pronounced “coal-ruh-fow-bee-uh”), can be a debilitating fear.
A phobia is and intense fear of a certain object or scenario that impacts behavior and sometimes daily life. Phobias are often a deep-rooted psychological response tied to a traumatic event in someone’s past.
For people who fear clowns, it can be difficult to stay calm near events that others view with joy — circuses, carnivals, or other festivals. The good news is you’re not alone, and there are things you can do to ease your fears.
Suffering from coulrophobia and getting spooked while watching a movie with a killer clown are very different things. One is a trigger for deep-seated panic and intense emotions, whereas the other is fleeting and confined to a 120-minute movie.
Researchers have found that portrayals of clowns as terrifying and negative characters in popular entertainment has contributed directly to increased instances of intense fear and phobia of clowns.
While coulrophobia isn’t an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the manual that guides mental health professionals as they diagnose, there is a category for “specific phobias.”
SYMPTOMS OF A PHOBIA
It’s important to recognize that just any other phobia, a fear of clowns comes with its own specific physical and mental symptoms, such as:
- sweating or sweaty palms
- dry mouth
- feelings of dread
- difficulty breathing
- increased heartbeat
- intense emotions such as screaming, crying, or becoming angry at the sight of the object of fear, a clown for example
Phobias often come from a variety of sources — usually a deeply traumatic and frightening event. Occasionally, however, you’ll come across a fear with roots you can’t identify, meaning you don’t know why you’re so intensely afraid of the thing in question. You just are.
In the case of coulrophobia, there are a few ly causes:
- Scary movies. There’s a connection between scary clowns in media and people being intensely afraid of them. Viewing too many scary movies with clowns at an impressionable age can have a lasting impact — even if it was just once at a friend’s sleepover.
- Traumatic experiences. Having an experience that involves a clown where you were paralyzed with terror or were unable to escape the situation could be classified as a traumatic experience. Your brain and body would be wired from that point on to flee any situation involving clowns. While this isn’t always the case, it’s possible that your phobia may be tied to traumas in your life, and it’s important to discuss this as a possible cause with a trusted therapist or family member.
- Learned phobia. This one is a little less common, but it’s equally possible that you may have learned your fear of clowns from a loved one or trusted authority figure. We learn rules about the world from our parents and other adults, so seeing your mom or older sibling terrified of clowns may have taught you that clowns are a thing to fear.
Most phobias are diagnosed by talking with a therapist or mental health professional, who then consults the diagnostic guidelines for that particular phobia in order to decide the best treatment moving forward. In the case of coulrophobia, things are a little trickier.
Since coulrophobia is not listed as an official phobia in the DSM-5, you may simply need to meet with a therapist to discuss your fear of clowns and the ways that fear seems to be impacting your life. Talk through what happens in your mind and body when you see a clown — shortness of breath, dizziness, panic, or anxiety, for example.
Once your therapist knows your experience, they can work with you to find a way to treat and manage your phobia.
Most phobias are treated with a combination of psychotherapy, medication, and at-home remedies or techniques.
Some treatments you can discuss with your therapist include, but are not limited to:
Psychotherapy is, essentially, talk therapy. You meet with a therapist to talk through anxieties, phobias, or other mental health issues you may be facing. For phobias such as coulrophobia, you’ll most ly use one of two types of psychotherapy:
- Exposure therapy.This type of therapy is almost exactly what it sounds . You’re exposed to the thing you fear in a non-threatening and safe environment. In this case, your therapist may show you a picture of a clown, and you can discuss the feelings and emotions that come up at the moment, working to find ways to reduce and manage their intensity.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT focuses on changing thinking and patterns around certain behaviors. For example, you may work with your therapist to change the way you think about clowns until it’s more positive or neutral.
Medication is best used in conjunction with regular talk therapy while treating your phobia. Some types of medication you may use in your treatment are:
- Beta-blockers. Also sometimes used for high blood pressure, beta-blockers cause your heartbeat to pump a little slower. In cases where you have a panic or fear response, this can help you feel more calm and relaxed.
- Sedatives.This is another type of prescription drug that can help you to feel more relaxed. Sedatives are a little more intense and can lead to dependence — so they are not typically a first-line treatment for anxiety or phobia.
Practicing a few helpful relaxation habits and techniques at home may help. For example:
- Mindfulness. This is a simple meditation technique that helps to center you in the present moment as opposed to any traumatic past experiences. Remember that sometimes phobias come from experiencing a trauma. Learning how to ground yourself where you are right now can help to reduce your fear response.
- Relaxation techniques. Other types of relaxation techniques may include guided meditation for a few minutes a day, yoga, or journaling quietly by yourself.
A few key ways to seek help for your coulrophobia include:
If your phobia is causing intense isolation or you’re feeling hopeless, you can speak to someone anytime by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Sometimes people are afraid of things that seem harmless to other people, butterflies, helium balloons, or clowns. Fear of clowns can be a phobia, and it can be effectively managed and treated with therapy, medication, or both.
Enough clowning around why are people afraid of clowns
Monsters, ghosts and ghouls, oh my!
Halloween is right around the corner and people are getting spooked at haunted houses, going out trick-or-treating and looking their scariest for Halloween parties.
For some people, though, there’s one costume that may be more unnerving than the rest: Clowns.
But why are people afraid of clowns? How did the modern-day jester become a scary Halloween costume and movie icon? Having a clinical phobia of clowns is rare, but it does exist. For most people, a fear of clowns is probably a combination of human psychology, mixed signals and pop culture.
If you or someone you know experiences extreme fear and panic of something that is ultimately harmless, you may have a phobia.
A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder that fixates an irrational fear on an object that’s not actually harmful. Phobias can cause panic attacks, sweating and nausea. There are many types of phobias and many different triggers.
General phobias such as agoraphobia are triggered by being in crowds of people, leaving home or traveling alone. Things heights, blood, animals, spiders and more can trigger isolated phobias.
“Coulrophobia” or literally “a fear of someone who walks on stilts,” is the unofficial word for the irrational fear of clowns.
This term arose sometime around 1980, but is not yet an officially recognized phobia by the World Health Organization.
“While being afraid of clowns is becoming increasingly common, having so-called coulrophobia is rare,” said Geisinger psychiatrist Robert Gerstman, DO, FACN.
“People with coulrophobia may experience nausea, sweating and difficulty breathing when they see a clown. They may go to huge lengths to avoid being anywhere near a clown.
For anyone whose life is seriously affected by coulrophobia or any other type of phobia, it’s best to go see a mental health provider.”
But what are the reasons that people are afraid of clowns in the first place? Here are three possible reasons:
Back in 1919, Sigmund Freud popularized the “uncanny” as a reason for fear. Freud described “uncanny” as something that is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. An example is a very life robot.
It may be able to do things smile, blink, look a person and talk, but you’re able to see subtle differences in their eyes, movements and speech that can create a sense of uneasiness.
This phenomenon explains why some people are creeped out by dolls, zombies and many other nearly-human things.
Because clowns distort their features for effect, it can make them “uncanny.” Clothes, shoes and hair are familiar to everyone, but once someone wears strange clothing, a red nose, exaggerated makeup, oversized shoes and with strangely-styled fluorescent hair, you may start to fixate on these differences and become uncomfortable.
Mixed signals and pattern recognition
If someone smiles, they’re happy. If they frown, they’re sad. These signals are easy to pick up from people—enough so that babies can do it. But that’s not the case with clowns.
“Since clowns paint on their smiles and frowns, you can’t read their emotions or know what they’re thinking,” said Dr. Gerstman. “If a clown has a painted-on smile but isn’t acting or sounding happy, your brain gets mixed signals. This interrupts the pattern that your brain is used to, making you uneasy.”
Another reason people find clowns scary is because they seem unpredictable. This feeling comes from things squirting flowers, fitting multiple clowns into a small car and doing tricks. These traits make clowns seem other-worldly and less normal humans—which makes them scary.
“Want your boat, Georgie?” may make your hair stand on end if you saw the movie It. In the first few minutes of the movie, Pennywise lures Georgie near the sewer drain by being kind … until Georgie gets too close.
Movies It and Killer Klowns from Outer Space have created a mysterious and threatening aura around clowns. Pair that with criminals John Wayne Gacy and the clown scare of 2016, and the image of clowns in pop culture starts to become more threatening than funny.
“Fear is influenced partly by our experiences and partly by our observations,” said Dr. Gerstman. “When people, especially small children, watch media that portrays something as harmful, you can develop a fear.
A good example of this is that after seeing Jaws, many people were hesitant to go back in the water—even though they’d never seen a shark attack in real life. They developed a fear of something they’d never experienced.
This is the body’s way of avoiding something it thinks could be harmful and is ly why more people are afraid of clowns today than in the past.”
Not everyone’s fear of clowns can be linked to It or John Wayne Gacy, though. It’s ly that personal experience ( a bad experience with a clown at a birthday party) combines with pop culture depictions to cause the fear of clowns.
In the end, clowns are intended to be fun, but if you know someone has a fear of clowns it’s best not to provoke them—especially young children.
And you might want to steer clear of that sewer grate.
Robert Gerstman, DO, FACN, is an assistant clinical professor of Psychiatry at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine.
The Reason You’re Afraid of Clowns, According to Psychologists
This is an actual text message I received from a friend last week: “What if I get attacked by a clown on my walk home from the subway?”
My friend, many people, has succumbed to the clown hysteria that’s been taking the media by storm. The new version of the Stephen King classic It is hitting the theaters, filling our televisions and news feeds with terrifying commercials.
And who could forget last year in South Carolina, when clown- figures were found attempting to lure kids into the woods.
Threatening clowns have since been spotted in dozens of communities across the United States—oftentimes threatening children and wielding knives—and these incidents have spurred copycats worldwide.
Bozo-based hysteria may be at an all-time high, but clowns have been creeping people out for many years. We spoke with two psychologists who—get this—have specifically studied the fear of clowns.
RELATED: 13 Things People With Anxiety Want You to Know
The main reason we're creeped out by clowns? We feel we can’t trust them, says Rami Nader, PhD, a psychologist and director of the North Shore Stress and Anxiety Clinic in North Vancouver, British Columbia.
“They have these large, artificial, painted-on expressions, which you know don’t actually represent how that clown is feeling because nobody can be happy all the time and yet the clown has a big happy smiling face all the time,” Nader says.
“In essence, you sort of know that it’s lying to you in terms of the presentation.”
Many people are also afraid of clown mannerisms, says Frank McAndrew, PhD, a professor of psychology at Knox College who specifically studies creepiness.
“People are afraid of clowns because they are so mischievous and unpredictable, and un vampires and ghosts, they really exist and could possibly cause trouble for you,” he explains.
Typical clown behavior—throwing pies, squirting people with water, cracking crude jokes—makes us uncomfortable and distrustful, two feelings that can cause fear and anxiety.
The portrayal of clowns in pop culture stokes our anxiety as well. If you saw Stephen King's It as a kid, for example, then you're more ly to see clowns a demonic figures.
“You see a film with a creepy, evil clown, and it changes the way you perceive clowns in the future, or could potentially do that,” says Nader.
“With this kind of clown hysteria going on, this is probably going to affect people’s view of clowns moving forward.”
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Luckily, most people’s clown fears aren’t debilitating, says Nader.
“Unless you happen to be a circus performer who has to work a lot with clowns, for the most part we generally don’t have to interact with clowns in our society and it doesn’t cause any distress or interference in your life at all.” So even if you're stressed out right now by the creepy clown craze, when it dies down, you should start feeling normal again.