For the last few months, actual clowns have been terrorizing America in at least 10 different states. These clowns lure women and children, chase people with knives, yell at people from cars, and lurk in cemeteries. Similar events happened around Boston in the 1980s, which led to the “The Phantom Clown Theory”. The Theory suggested clown sightings lead to mass hysteria.
An English study in 2008 found that very few children actually like clowns. Decorating children’s wards of hospitals has the opposite effect it was meant to have. Why do we find clowns so disturbing?
Jesters have been around for thousands of years, a safety valve to let off steam. The word “clown” first appeared in the 1500s, coined by Shakespeare describing foolish characters in his plays. The common circus clown of today came about in the 19th century with little to no change since then.
The creepy clown persona came on strong in the 1970s when serial killer John Wayne Gacy, a children’s clown by the name “Pogo the Clown” was captured. The connection between clowns and dangerous psychopathic behavior is fixed in the American unconscious. Since then, Hollywood has used clowns to scare us in movies such as Poltergeist(1982), Killer Klowns from Outer Space(1988), It(1990), Zombieland(2009), and All Hallow’s Eve(2013).
The creepiness of clowns might have to do with ambiguity. An online study asked people what they thought were creepy behaviors, creepy occupations, and creepy hobbies. The results showed that males are more creepy than females, unpredictability is a creepy trait, and unusual eye contact and nonverbal behaviors set off our creep detectors. Odd physical characteristics like bulging eyes, weird smile, and long fingers do not come off as creepy unless the person has other creepy tendencies, such as talking about odd sexual topics or always bringing reptiles to work. The creepiest occupation listed was – clowns.
With that gut instinct you get when you sense things aren’t quite right, it could be perilous to ignore your intuition if it is truly a threat. Feeling “creeped out” is a human reaction to situations that could be dangerous. Clown phobias, or coulrophobia, are enhanced by the makeup and disguises that hide the true identities and feelings.
It is the uncertainty surrounding clowns that makes them creepy. They appear happy, but also mischievous, so people are always on guard around them. They might throw a pie in your face or embarrass you with some other humiliating prank… or worse.
McAndrew, Frank. “Column: The psychology behind why clowns creep us out.” Health. PBS, 29 Sep 2016. Web. 2 Oct 2016.