The Strange Reason Why People Are Afraid Of Clowns

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We generally consider phobias to be an irrational, but very real phenomenon. The fears are often unfounded, based on extremely slim chances that are unlikely to happen to you or anyone, but they’re also widely accepted. We, as a society, understand that some fears exist just because.

An example of one-such fear is the fear of clowns. Though we all can agree they’re creepy at times, and don’t really fault someone for having the fear, is there more under the surface when it comes to its origins? One team of researchers decided to find out.

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A Funny Fear

Coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns, is a strange yet widespread phenomenon that we’ve seen repeated in our lives and within pop culture repeatedly. Numerous horror movies capitalize on the fear of clowns, dressing up a killer in the guise of a traditionally comedic costume.

Smiling clown with a bunch of colorful air balloons.
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Envato Elements

Even without their help, some people naturally develop a fear of clowns. So many people, in fact, that it’s become one of the most well-known fears in the world, spreading across ages and cultures.

This begs the question, why exactly are we so afraid of clowns?

Broad Curiosity

Thankfully, there are people on the case.

Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise in It (2017)
New Line Cinema via MovieStillsDB
New Line Cinema via MovieStillsDB

A group of researchers were curious about the societal origins behind coulrophobia, wanting to understand not only the psychology behind it, but its commonality in adults and the severity in those who have it.

They developed a questionnaire that was filled out by 987 people between the ages of 18 and 77 then compiled their results to share with the world. If you have coulrophobia yourself, you’ll likely find your reasoning in these answers.

Let’s Look At The Numbers

Of all the respondents, over half of them (53.5%) said they were scared of clowns to some degree, 5% saying they were “extremely afraid” of them.

Black Mangrove Pit Viper Snake Purpureomaculatus on a Tree
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Envato Elements

This percentage of ‘extreme fear’ is higher than those reported for other common phobias. For example, of all those afraid of injections, only 3% are extremely afraid of them. For heights it’s 2.8%, closed spaces is 2.2%, and flying is only 1.3%.

They also discovered that women are more likely to be afraid of clowns than men, though their research wasn’t able to indicate exactly why that is. However, that appears to be true for a number of other common fears such as snakes or spiders. The fear of clowns also tends to decrease in age, also similarly to other fears.

Potential Reasoning

Up next is the team’s investigation into the reasoning behind peoples’ fear of clowns. To those who said they had the fear, they were sent a follow-up questionnaire that presented eight potential explanations for the fear’s origins. They were:

Funny clown with children inflates soap bubbles together.
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Envato Elements

“1. An eerie or unsettling feeling due to clowns’ makeup making them look not-quite-human. A similar response is sometimes seen with dolls or mannequins.

2. Clowns’ exaggerated facial features convey a direct sense of threat.

3. Clown makeup hides emotional signals and creates uncertainty.

4. The color of clown makeup reminds us of death, infection or blood injury, and evokes disgust or avoidance.

5. Clowns’ unpredictable behavior makes us uncomfortable.

6. Fear of clowns has been learned from family members.

7. Negative portrayals of clowns in popular culture.

8. A frightening experience with a clown.”

Pop Culture Persuasion

Of all the possibilities, the one with the lowest score was the eighth option, having a frightening experience with a clown. In their write-up for The Conversation, the team said, “This indicates that life experience alone is not a sufficient explanation for why people are afraid of them.”

David Howard Thorton as Art The Clown in Terrifier (2016)

However, “negative portrayals of clowns in popular culture” was a much more popular reason for the fear, all the Pennywise and Art The Clown-type characters having done a number on many people’s psyche.

Smoke And Mirrors

“However,” the write-up continued, “some people are afraid of Ronald McDonald, the fast food chain mascot, and he is not meant to scare you. This suggests there might be something more fundamental about the way clowns look that unsettles people.”

A clown in a crowd, their arms outstretched.
Pexels / Nishant Aneja
Pexels / Nishant Aneja

This leads us to the top-voted reasoning behind peoples’ fear of clowns, “Clown makeup hides emotional signals and creates uncertainty.”

That’s right, most people attributed their fear of clowns to not being able to see their expressions thanks to their exaggerated face paint.

We Fear What We Cannot See

“We cannot see their “true” faces and therefore cannot understand their emotional intent,” the team wrote when explaining this reasoning. “So, for example, we don’t know whether they have a frown or a furrowed brow, which would indicate anger. Not being able to detect what a clown is thinking or what they might do next makes some of us on edge when we are around them.”

Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise in It (2017)
New Line Cinema via MovieStillsDB
New Line Cinema via MovieStillsDB

It’s a fascinating bit of insight that reminds us of what humans truly fear most: the unknown.

How Far Does This Go?

However, the research team believes there’s more to uncover here.

Tim Curry as Pennywise in It (1990)
The WB Television Network via MovieStillsDB
The WB Television Network via MovieStillsDB

“This research has provided some new insights into why people are afraid of clowns – yet more questions remain. For instance, if makeup which masks emotions causes fear, do people who have their faces painted as animals also create the same kind of effect? Or is there something more particular about the makeup of clowns that drives this fear?”

They say this is the focus for their continued research, dedicated to learn more about the primal human instinct that is fear.

The Origins Of Fear

It’s one thing to be afraid of something due to a strange event or scary interaction you had with that thing. Someone being afraid of dogs because they were bit by one as a kid, or a veteran being afraid of fireworks due to the noise replicated dire moments in service.

A brown lab with a chain collar mid-bark, head tilted upwards.
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Envato Elements

However, to be afraid of something because your brain simply cannot comprehend it the way it would most other things? That’s truly fascinating, not to mention truly creepy.

Listen To Your Gut

With this in mind, it makes sense why so many horror movie monsters frighten us the way they do; they’re not something our brains can recognize. There’s also the case of the uncanny valley, which is likely where clowns rest. Something that’s almost human or appears human, but there’s something slightly off about them that our brains then turn into fear. It doesn’t recognize it, it doesn’t know how to react to it, it can’t predict what it will do next, so it reacts with panic and upset.

Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise in It (2017)
New Line Cinema via MovieStillsDB
New Line Cinema via MovieStillsDB

The psychology of fear is an interesting thing, something we could pick apart for ages. Behind it all, though, is one common lesson: if something in your brain is telling you to run, you probably should.

Daniel Mitchell-Benoit

Dan is a content writer with three years of experience under their belt, having mostly covered viral media but now shifting toward spirituality and astrology. He’s a strong believer in using one’s beliefs as a means of self-improvement and being in touch with whatever messages the universe has to offer.

He can’t wait to share his insights with a[…]