Why are people afraid of clowns?

Don't Send in the Clowns
Ronald McDonald poses with fans during the Latin Grammy Street Parties 2013 in Phoenix, Ariz.
Ronald McDonald poses with fans during the Latin Grammy Street Parties 2013 in Phoenix, Ariz.
Mike Moore/Wire Image/Getty Images

Just as clown mythos seemed to reach a scary peak in Europe, a different storyline was evolving in the U.S. As the circus became popular in late 19th-century America, clowns took a more lighthearted approach. By the time Clarabell the Clown (from "The Howdy Doody Show") and Bozo the Clown reached television audiences in the mid-1950s to early 1960s, clowns had become a symbol of innocent children's entertainment [source: Rodriguez McRobbie]. Ronald McDonald, long-time spokesclown for the McDonald's hamburger chain, got his start in the 1960s and is still going strong today.

So why would these happy images cause discomfort? Experts point out that young children may not necessarily be scared of clowns per se. Rather, they are frightened of the unusual and unknown, whatever form it takes. This is why some children are equally afraid of clowns, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus [source: Rohrer].

For adults, the exaggerated makeup, manic behavior and unknowable emotions -- what's really going on behind the smiling mask? -- contribute to their unease [source: D'Costa].

And let's not discount the influence of pop culture. From Bart Simpson's "can't sleep, the clown will eat me" to the cult film "Night of the Demon" and the Joker character in Batman films, scary clowns have become part of the collective psyche. The fact that real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy dressed as a clown for children's parties only helped fuel the fear.

Sure, it's pretty easy to avoid clowns in real life but if you want to get over your coulrophobia, treatment typically follows methods used for other phobias. These can range from biofeedback and anti-anxiety medication to repeated and prolonged exposure. One circus runs a program to help adults overcome their clown fear; they start by first having clients meet the clown in his regular clothes and without any makeup. Gradually they see him put on his clown costume and face paint. They also learn about the history of clowns and why they act as they do [source: Williams].

Finally, the presence of a clown can sometimes be actually therapeutic. A 2013 study in the Journal of Health Psychology found that a therapy clown's presence lessened pre-operative anxiety in children who were having minor surgery. A therapy clown has had special training in working with sick children so as to make them feel comfortable and lessen stress. Perhaps all circus clowns could benefit from this.

Author's Note: Why are people afraid of clowns?

After I read Stephen King's "It" as a teenager, I never looked at a sewer grate quite the same. It's not that clowns suddenly became scary, it's that my well-tuned imagination could fuel just about any fear -- especially when it came to the Unknowable. The book's premise that people could appear one way on the outside and have entirely different intentions on the inside has its roots in reality (John Wayne Gacy comes to mind), and that concept is scarier than a clown costume any day.

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