The term “coulrophobia” is thought be derived from a Greek phrase meaning “fear of the man on stilts.” It is also known as “bozophobia” or simply “clownophobia,” which is, let’s be honest, is less of a mouthful than “coulrophobia.”
Neither children nor adults seem to be very fond of clowns. A 2008 study in England found that “clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable…. Very few children like clowns. They are unfamiliar and come from a different era. They don’t look funny, they just look odd.”
A 2016 study of volunteers aged 18 to 77 found that they ranked “clown” as the creepiest profession of them all—it scored even higher than “taxidermist” and “funeral director.”
What causes coulrophobia?
There is a psychological term called the “uncanny valley” which describes a very deep fear of things that seem almost human…but not quite. This is why people are less creeped-out by an old-school robot from the 1950s than a modern cyborg that looks almost completely human.
The same is true of clowns. They seem human, but they have that smile painted on their face forever, whether they’re happy or not. And their clothes and hair are usually exaggerated and cartoonish. So you’re dealing with a human who looks like a cartoon. In many people, this triggers a deep sense of revulsion.
The Great “Killer Clown” Scare of 2016
What most disturbs people with coulrophobia are not necessarily clowns themselves, because many of them aren’t triggered by circus clowns, because that’s where you expect to see a clown. But you don’t expect to see them show up late at night in an urban alleyway. You don’t expect to see them roaming graveyards. You don’t expect to have them jump out of the bushes and get caught in the headlights as you’re driving late at night.
There have been reports of “phantom clown” appearances going all the way back to the early 1980s in Massachusetts. And it’s impossible to figure out how many reports are hoaxes, how many are the result of mass panics, how many are the result of pranks, and how many are legitimate reports of dangerous people in clown masks attacking and terrorizing others. Probably a little of each.
But the year 2016 is notable in that it started with a rumor in South Carolina and then led to a mass panic where by year’s end, there had been reports of clown sightings in 40 US states and 18 countries around the world.
In August 2016, several residents of a South Carolina apartment complex reported that clowns who lived in a house near a lake were luring children into the woods.
From there, it led to reports of clowns in cemeteries, in forests, near schools, and on lonely roads at night.
Several reports were related to actual crimes where the perpetrators wore clown masks and wielded guns, knives, baseball bats, and their bare fists. Others were the result of pranksters and performance artists. And many, no doubt, were spurred by the mass hysteria of a classic moral panic.
On a few American college campuses, the clown scare actually led to posses who went on “clown hunts” seeking to bring the killer clowns to justice. These hunts proved fruitless and nonviolent. But in Mexico City, two men wearing clown costumes were beaten to death by an angry mob who’d been whipped up by killer-clown hysteria.
Three Real-Life Killer Clowns
By definition, a “phobia” is an irrational fear of something. Unfortunately, there are a few real-life cases where it was entirely rational to fear clowns.
“John Wayne Gacy” by The Orchid Club (Flickr)
The most infamous case—and one that’s thought to have helped spark the modern wave of clown hysteria—is that of Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who murdered 33 people and stuffed most of them in the crawlspace under his him. Although Gacy didn’t wear his clown outfit while committing murder, he performed for children and at charity events as “Pogo the Clown.” While being investigated for a string of murders, Gacy reportedly boasted to police, “You know, clowns can get away with murder.”
The most famous European clown of the 1800s was a Frenchman named Jean-Gaspard Deburau, better known as “Pierrot.” In 1836, he beat a young boy to death with a walking stick, allegedly for insulting him in public.
When Marlene Warren of Wellington Florida opened her front door one day in May of 1990, a clown with flowers and balloons shot her in the face and drove away. She died two days later. It wasn’t until 2017 when someone was finally arrested for the murder—Sheila Warren, who had married Warren’s ex-husband in 2002, twelve years after the murder.
Scary Clowns in Popular Culture
• One of the most famous and long-lasting scary clowns in American pop culture is Batman’s nemesis The Joker. He has a scary face, a scary laugh, and he takes great delight in torturing people.
• In the film Poltergeist (1982), a boy’s clown doll springs to life and attacks him.
• Pennywise, the psycho clown in Stephen King’s 1986 novel It, is the archetype for a whole slew of killer and zombie clowns that followed in films.
• In a 1992 episode of Seinfeld, Crazy Joe Davola dresses up as the tragic opera clown Pagliacci and scares the living daylights out of Kramer, who confesses to a lifelong fear of clowns.
• Michigan-based rap duo Insane Clown Posse have milked the psycho clown theme for all it’s worth, inspiring a group of fanatical fans who call themselves Juggalos and dress up as clowns as some sort of Midwestern misfits’ bonding ritual.
People With Coulrophobia Describe Why They Fear Clowns
I’m not afraid of clowns, puppets, or animatronics by themselves, but I am afraid of marionette clown puppets and animatronic clowns. We have this clown puppet that we got from someone a while ago, it used to hang in the corner of our spare room (where the family computer was)….I was terrified of it. I thought it sort of ‘watched’ me with that stupid creepy grin on its face when I was doing homework.
When I was a kid, I always had the same nightmare every night that I was stuck in a creepy old house with a terrifying clown family. The house was big and full of dusty old things, the windows were super small and placed really high, and then I would be in a room like that with a large table in the middle and the father would chase me in circles around it.
I was a young child and I watched the movie IT with my parents and clowns have bothered me ever since! I honestly still have a small sense of fear strike me when I walk past a sewage drain with a grate cover….They all swim down here! Thanks, Stephen King!
I am 52 years old and have had it since childhood. People at work make fun at me with it because I am 6ft, 3 inch tall and weigh 220lbs. Since I have been teased a lot over my fear of clowns, I have actually become less fearful. But if ever at a strange place and a clown is wondering around, you can bet I will not take my eyes off it.
I’m a soldier… Yet CLOWNS give me such bad anxiety!!! My heart pounds, my eyes tear up & I uncontrollably shake….I have had this fear since I was a very young child, I was afraid of Santa & the EB too as a child…I outgrew them, but NEVER got over clowns…
I’m 21 years old and I’ve had this phobia since i was 5-6 years old when I went to my first circus. Ive never went to a circus again after that….Every moment from that on I’ve had this unexplainable fear of clowns that isn’t of this world. My heart pumps faster, pulse goes up, I get sick to my stomach, feels like I can’t breathe sometimes….
I’m 29 now but I am still terrified. If I even see a clown, clown Afro, or a red balloon I get away as quick as possible until I can’t see it anymore. I even got kicked out of a haunted house that had a clown. He grabbed me and I was so freaked out I kicked him in the nuts and punched him before running past the group to an emergency exit.
Um so I’ve had this since I was about 5 I remember going to a circus with my grandparents and falling asleep on my grandma and me being me just had to wake up at the wrong time. There were about 5 clowns right in front of us our seats being the front row seats and one was looking at me right in the eye and was super close to my face. I almost fainted. To this day I get flashbacks of that face.
I am 42. 6 ft 3″ 240 pounds and I don’t remember seeing many clowns as a child. But at some point my first expose was a dramatic one. When a clown gets in close proximity of me my whole body will tense up. My hands shake and sweat. I become extremely and dramatically agitated….Nothing else can elicit a response so quickly and so fiercely as when a clown approaches me. I relate it to what I image a wild animal feels when cornered. I have extreme feelings of defending myself or attacking them.
I am 23 years old and once people know I suffer from this fear, I am made fun of, and they want to see what happens to me when they show me a picture of a clown. I get anxiety attacks and I just want to run and scream. I can’t sleep or be left alone. I literally feel as if a clown is going to kill me. I don’t know where this fear came from and none of what I read above makes sense to me. Halloween is the worst day ever!!
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