What really scares us about clowns?
A child’s birthday party is, for most of us, an enjoyable experience. However, for some people the thought of encountering the entertainer can be too much. These people could suffer from coulrophobia: a fear of clowns.
Whilst clowns are supposed to be entertaining, they often take on a much more sinister nature. The recent spate of killer clowns has harmed the industry, with many clowns no longer able to work and some even reporting being attacked.
Why do clowns scare us?
Although the majority of us don’t suffer from this frightening infliction, it is very common to find clowns disturbing and chilling. Just what is it about these characters that causes so much hysteria?
One theory is that the heavy make-up and masks hide the wearer’s true expression, making us uneasy because we can’t read them. Sometimes the make-up is done in such a way as to look frightening, with a sinister grin and dark, evil-looking eyes. However, it is often painted on to look friendly and inviting, yet it can still deliver the same result.
You often see it with dogs and small children, where they become frightened when a person puts on a mask. Behavioural scientists have put this down to not being able to read that person, to connect with them on some level.
Paul Ekman’s theory of ‘leaked expressions’ tells us that expressions where different parts of the face are telling contradictory stories, we are given the impression that they have something to hide and should not be trusted.
Clowns are human but are slightly removed from our normal appearance, making them seem both familiar and odd. Features are exaggerated and as humans, we have a natural aversion to this asymmetrical look.
They appear illogical and confusing, making us both laugh and feel wary at the same time. This feeling can play tricks on the mind and leave us unsure of what we are witnessing.
Another theory is the unpredictable nature of clowns, as they try to trick and deceive us. This is usually done for entertainment purposes, such as the circus clowns squirting us with water from a trick flower, but it can cause unease on a subconscious level.
This is because being tricked can affect us psychologically and some people may even see clowns as having strange abilities. Don’t you find it weird that 15 clowns can fit into a small car? I can’t think of anyone who would enjoy having a balloon popped in their face!
Authors and movie producers have long used clowns to scare the audience, playing on our fear and fascination with these strange, mysterious characters.
‘Clownhouse’ was a horror film released in 1989, about a group of escaped mental patients who dressed up as clowns and terrorised a group of boys alone in a house. If you couple the excellent horror movie techniques used, with the chilling discovery that the director molested young boys during production, this really does give clowns a terrifying reputation.
‘It’ was an extremely popular Stephen King book, later released as a TV mini-series, that introduced us to the chilling Pennywise character. He has arguably become the best-known clown ever to grace our screens and continues to terrify people all over the world. This story is currently being re-made into a new film, so if you have managed to recover from the first time round, prepare yourself to be petrified all over again!
Perhaps one of the darkest clown figures depicted on the big screen is The Joker, played by the late and very brilliant Heath Ledger. His portrayal has been described as both manic and twisted, giving the audience the portrayal of a true psychopath. In fact, Heath Ledger found it impossible to escape the dark and sinister clutches of this character and he sank further into depression, ultimately dying from an overdose.
What is historically fascinating about this particular character, is the scars he obsesses over during the film. His mouth is cut at both sides, making it impossible for him to look sad. These scars aren’t just frightening make-up, they are actually reminiscent of a disturbing fact about the original clowns, the court jesters.