There are certain things in the world that give people “the creeps”. These things are usually dolls, masked figures, and (in light of recent events) clowns. But what makes these seemingly harmless objects so scary? After coming across a Vsauce video on Youtube about why people find certain things creepy, I decided to look further into it.
In light of the recent events that have been taking place across the nation, I wanted to look into why so many people suffer from coulrophobia, or a fear of clowns. In this article, professor of psychology at Knox College, IL, Frank McAndrew, explains that the feeling of creepiness tends to appear when people cannot completely determine if what they are experiencing is a threat or not.
According to this article, Dr. Steven Shlozman from Harvard Medical School, a big factor as to why people get creeped out by clowns due to their unnatural smiles. There is something about someone who is perpetually smiling that makes people uncomfortable. There is a phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley” which explains why things such as clowns, dolls, masks, and even human-like robots an frighten people and make them feel uneasy. The uncanny valley (show below) represents a sudden drop in familiarity and empathy for certain objects. This sudden drop is due to the fact that those objects that people fear are very close to being realistic, but they are just slightly “off”. This is especially visible in dolls, human masks, and human-like robots.
Going back to clowns, There are other reasons to why many people are uncomfortable around them. Dr Scholzman also mentions that people dislike clowns because of how they are portrayed in books and movies. The two most obvious examples of this are Stephen King’s killer clown character, Pennywise, from his book (and later movie) It, and also Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. Both of these characters are portrayed as evil, and this certainly instills the idea that clowns should be feared into the minds of many people. Of course, the recent clown activity across the country plays into this and further promotes this fear.
Another reason as to why clowns are so scary to people is that the masks and makeup they use conceal their true facial expressions. This is related to the permanent smile. People’s inability to see someone’s true facial expressions makes them appear less human, and therefore further down into the uncanny valley. This not only applies to clowns but to any masked figure as well. This directly relates back to the concept of not being able to determine if something is a threat or not. The uneasiness you might experience while looking at a clown or a doll comes in because it seems like it is harmless but at the same time you cannot really tell.
Unfortunately, knowing this will not stop any clowns, but at least you understand why people are so scared of them.