Why some people are terrified of clowns

Can you remember the first time you saw a clown? For most children they are figures of fun and amusement. They entertain us with their tricks and juggling and you can’t help but smile when you see their slapstick and bright colours.

But this is not the case for everyone. Some people experience intense fear and anxiety when they see a clown. Think of Stephen King’s hit-movie It. Just like Pennywise scared the living daylights out of moviegoers, some of us can’t stand being around a real-life clown, or even seeing pictures of a person dressed up as one. But why is this the case, and what is life like for sufferers?

What is it?

Although not a formally recognised disorder, coulrophobia, as it is commonly known, has been studied by researchers. The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) does however include coulrophobia in the “specific phobia” group.

A recent study defined the phenomenon as “an irrational fear of clowns”, and it’s estimated that 1.2% of hospitalised children experience a fear of clowns.

Interestingly, four out of 14 paediatricians and paediatric residents who took part in the study consider themselves to be afraid of clowns. Unfortunately, statistics for other groups are scarce.

Why the negative reaction?

But why are people so afraid of clowns? Is it because some real-life serial killers (such as John Gacy) have dressed up like clowns, or because we have seen too many horror movies featuring them?

Yes, and no, says scientists. Clowns often set off negative reactions that occur deep within our brains.

One study suggests the following factors influence whether we are creeped out or not:

  • Gender. Males are generally perceived to be creepier. Most clowns are male.
  • Unpredictability. If there’s no set pattern of behaviour we get scared. You never know what he is going to do next.
  • Unusual visual contact. Sometimes a clown stares at you, and other times he only briefly looks in your direction. Your brain picks up on these nonverbal behaviours. 

Rami Nader, a Canadian psychologist, believes clowns are inherently deceptive and it is this quality that can elicit fear. They wear make-up and disguise their true identities and feelings, and we find it difficult to relate to them on a human level.

‘The uncanny theory’

In 1919 psychiatrist Sigmund Freud postulated that we are terrified of things that are both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. For example: Some people might react negatively to a person with a severed head or limb (the unfamiliar) even though the biggest part of the person’s body is still intact (familiar).

Similarly, a clown has familiar features such as a mouth, ears, nose and feet, but their body parts are exaggerated and thus unfamiliar.

When to seek help

“If someone has a clown phobia, they might have an anxiety response just from looking at a picture of a clown,” Kristin Kunkle, a clinical psychologist at the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders, told Live Science.

Health24 previously reported that a clinical phobia differs from everyday anxiety in terms of the severity of the emotional response and to what extent the phobia disrupts a person’s day-to-day functioning.

Scott Woodruff, a psychologist with the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York City, says clowns don't feature much in the life of the average person.

“Experiencing fear when seeing clowns once or twice a year probably wouldn't merit treatment,” Woodruff told Live Science.

“On the other hand, a father who avoids all child birthday parties just in case a clown shows up very well might want help.”

Treatment

There are several ways to treat coulrophobia, which largely overlap with the treatment of other phobias.

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This treatment, also known as CBT, aims to desensitise the patient to the stimulus, in this case clowns. This can be accomplished by systematic desensitisation (the person is slowly introduced to clowns). In the video above the therapist methodically works through the subject's fear. Exposure therapy can also be part of the process, when the person is introduced to clowns without doing it gradually.
  • Relaxation. Psychologists help the person with breathing and relaxation exercises to reduce anxiety.
  • Medication. In some instances, medication is needed. Anti-anxiety medication and serotonin reuptake inhibiters can help in severe cases.

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