Phobias are irrational and specific
- Many people find clowns creepy.
- Psychologists think it could be because they're unpredictable, they smile too much, and there's something familiar yet strange about them.
- But others have a paralysing fear of clowns — or coulrophobia.
- Phobias develop when our amygdala fires up and makes us feel scared, then we reinforce the fear by not dealing with it.
- Some phobias seem ridiculous, but for the people who have them, they're incredibly real.
Before people dressed up in garish colours and facepaint started terrorising people, and even before , some people were already completely terrified of clowns.
Psychologists believe cases of coulrophobia, or a fear of clowns, may nowadays have something to do with clowns often being the subject of horror stories — like the sinister character of Pennywise. But a paper from 2008 found that very few children liked clowns at all when they saw them in doctors surgeries, dentists, or hospitals.
Rather than bringing joy, covering children's wards with pictures of clowns might have the opposite effect. It could be because children start associating the garish faces with being ill or getting vaccinations. Or they might just think they're creepy.
Certain behaviours can be creepy
This is the case for some people, according to the work of Frank T. McAndrew, a social psychologist who has become something of an expert in clown fears. He published a study in 2019, which can help explain the disconcerting feeling clowns give rise to for many of us.
McAndrew and colleagues recruited 1,341 volunteers aged 18 to 77 and asked them to fill out a survey about the characteristics and behaviours they saw as creepy. The results showed men are more likely to be seen as creepy, and unpredictable behaviours made people uncomfortable, such as strange patterns of eye contact.
Clown characteristics such as a big mouth and bulging eyes were not seen as particularly creepy on their own, but they did enhance the creepiness of inappropriate behaviours, like vulgar conversation topics, or bringing lizards to the office. The occupation right at the top of the list for creepiness was, in fact, clowns.
"The results were consistent with my theory that getting 'creeped out' is a response to the ambiguity of threat and that it is only when we are confronted with uncertainty about threat that we get the chills," .
"For example, it would be considered rude and strange to run away in the middle of a conversation with someone who is sending out a creepy vibe but is actually harmless; at the same time, it could be perilous to ignore your intuition and engage with that individual if he is, in fact, a threat. The ambivalence leaves you frozen in place, wallowing in discomfort."
You don't know who they are
There's also the theory, favoured by the Canadian psychologist Rami Nader, that excessive clown makeup disguises someone's true identity, which can be quite alarming.
"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 told Health.com. "In essence, you sort of know that it's lying to you in terms of the presentation."
Clowns also act in ways that put people on guard, because you don't know if they're going to jump out at you, or you might get a pie in the face. They also look like people, but with something a little off about them, which can make us feel uncomfortable.
"The clown — with its painted-on expression of happiness and humor — limits the range of feelings we're supposed to feel," neuroscientist Jordan Gaines Lewis wrote in a blog post for Psychology Today. "The clown insists that we laugh. We may not want to laugh. The situation becomes, at best, awkward, and at worst — combined with the unsettling colorful familiarity — terrifying."
Phobias are irrational and specific
But there's a difference between finding something a little creepy, and having a paralysing fear, which is the case with coulrophobia — so how does something like this develop?
There isn't much evidence that early childhood trauma is the cause. Psychologist Perpetua Neo told INSIDER, "it's more that there is something that happened that caused a lot of fear that created this link between this stimulus, this situation, and this big fear response."
Phobias are always irrational, and incredibly specific. With a fear of clowns, it could have started when a clown jumped out at someone at the circus. It could've been the shock, the loud noise, or anything else about the situation that made them feel frightened.
When you're scared, an area in the brain called the amygdala — the fear center — fires up.
"The amygdala is a very primal part of the brain... and is interested in basically helping you to survive," Neo said. "So when something creates a sense of fear in you, it's going to light up, and it's going to go 'danger, danger, danger,' so it's going to activate your fight, flight, or freeze system."
This fear is also reinforced by the fact you might be embarrassed by it. So you keep it in your mind, and worry about all the terrifying outcomes of being in the same room as a clown, or being trapped in the circus chairs, unable to run away.
"We have this thing called an expectancy bias, which is a big fear beforehand," Neo said.
"Then the next time someone says let's go to the circus, you start feeling really worried because your brain is going through all the different permutations, about how you're going to react when you see the clown."
When your "" kicks in, Neo said it's like looking into a cracked crystal ball, where instead of a bright future all you see are the worst kinds of disasters.
Some phobias seem ridiculous, but to the person who has it it's incredibly real and terrifying. Neo said you should never dismiss someone's fears or laugh at them, because we all have something that "scares the s--t out of us."
"Everybody has a weak spot, and every time you try and act superior to someone else you make them feel like s--t for being human," she said.
Video: Phobias - specific phobias, agoraphobia, & social phobia
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