Why Are People So Scared of Clowns?

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.






7 thoughts on “Why Are People So Scared of Clowns?

  1. Angela Maria Napolitano

    This is kind of interesting, because in some cultures masks used to represent things that in some cases very sacred to the culture. (Here’s a link to the history of masks that I found interesting:http://www.historyofmasks.net/ ) So why is it that in our culture, and others, masks are viewed as creepy or scary? Last night, my roommate walked into the room at about 3:00am after watching the movie Halloween at her friend’s dorm. She promptly sat down and said “Okay I HATE clowns. And I will never be leaving this room again. You thought we were going out on Halloween? NOPE!” So what was it about clowns that made us as a society collectively decide that they would make perfect horror movie characters?

  2. Hannah Elizabeth Welty

    When it comes to the PSU clown riots I think people were more excited that there was a reason to be scared than they were actually scared. There are certain brains that just crave fear, thrill seekers some may call them. It’s the natural high that comes from being scared and the sympathetic response that happens that is truely thrilling. HERE are some more specifics on the reasons fear is so delightful sometimes

  3. Erin Nicole Kemp

    I have a friend who has always been afraid of clowns and I could never pinpoint why but your post makes a lot of sense. I actually have been weary of clowns on stilts throughout my life, such as those at the circus. Normal clowns never were an issue for me, but such a happy figure is odd.

  4. Mansi M Patel

    This is an extremely relevant post because of recent clown hysteria across the country. I don’t even think it’s the concept of clowns that are scary. I think that we see evil clowns portrayed in the media and that’s what it is we are scared of: the evil qualities. Bloody masks, clowns wielding weapons… Not particularly a funny wig, red nose or big shoes. So yes, I agree with you Akhil on movies like Stephen King’s “It” influencing us to perceive all clowns as scary. For me, it is the killer clown in season 4 of American Horror Story: Freak Show.

  5. Hannah Marie Helmes

    What a relevant topic! Especially with Halloween coming up. I’ve always been afraid of seeing clowns on Halloween but now I’m bringing pepper spray this year! I find this post interesting but I’m curious as to why, if so many people dislike clowns, what is different about Penn State students that we decided to chase the clowns when most schools went on lockdown (because of fear)? Is there something genetically different about Penn Students that most of us do not fear clowns? Or is this just due to chance?

  6. Madelyn Erin Peikin

    This post was extremely relevant especially considering all of the clown drama that has been occurring within the past few months! I have never really found myself to be scared of clowns until the whole clown cult started, however. People always found it weird that I was not afraid of them, but I guess I was always more afraid of things like murderers and dolls rather than clowns. Now that there are hundreds of clowns traveling the world as a cult, however, they creep me out. I would never want to come into contact with one of them, especially after there was one case of someone getting stabbed by one. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Ashton Blair Pinter

    Perfect timing for this blog being as the “killer clowns” were at Penn State just a short while ago. I am not personally afraid of clowns but I can see why others might be. You said that masks and makeup that clowns uses is a part of the problem. You said that it conceals their actual emotions and thinking about it now, kind of creeps me out. As a child I was always playing with my mom’s makeup. This might be why the makeup on clowns does not scare me because I had a similar look when I would improperly use my mom’s makeup. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfXts6NLBOA That is a link for a clown makeup tutorial. (It would have been helpful for me as a kid).

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