The root of coulrophobia

4 Mins read

I have always been terrified of clowns.

Not an exaggeration but a Bart-Simpson-style “can’t sleep, clown will eat me” style fear of clowns; their noses, the face paint, the awful wigs – I could go on.

So naturally I’ve been intrigued by the 2016 Scary Clown Epidemic, constantly searching Twitter for the most recent sighting.

I don’t think I have ever seen a clown in real life (probably down to my outright refusal to visit the circus), but as a six-year-old I watched Stephen King’s It for the first time at my babysitter’s house.

I could not actually retell the plot of It, but all I could see when I tried to sleep (eventually ending up in my parent’s bed) was Pennywise’s face and awful teeth paired with a bunch of balloons.

It has since led my adult self into thinking all clowns are scary. Not just the ones who are created to scare; there’s just something creepy about someone who dresses up as a clown.

In August 2016, the first sighting appeared with reports of people dressed up as clowns attempting to lure children into the woods in South Carolina.

It has since moved around the US, then to Canada and Australia, and in October it came to the UK. Since October 1st, police forces across England have received multiple reports of clowns chasing people down the street.

Two Essex school girls were asked if they “wanted to go to a birthday party” by two clowns in a van, and a Brunel university student dressed up as a clown and chased people around the campus.

These clown sightings started out as relatively harmless, but have since taken a violent turn; a man in Bournemouth was dragged along the ground and left bloodied by one of the clowns and a teenager in Sweden was stabbed in the head.

Other sightings have led to arrests and fake rumours of killer clowns. But where did the idea of a scary clown originate?

There is no clear explanation for why there have been so many clown sightings, but with it happening just a few months before Halloween, some speculate that it could all just be down to that.

Some believe it is a reflection of America’s current political situation, believing the presidential candidates are clowns in the wrong place.

However, this is not the first time clown sightings have caused mass panic; the spring of 1981 in Boston saw reports of similar activities with clowns in vans chasing or luring children.

[pullquote align=”right”]“Jesters who failed to make the king laugh would have the muscles that are used to frown cut”[/pullquote]

The fear of clowns, known as coulrophobia, is not recognised as a medical phobia, and is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

However, the University of Sheffield carried out a study which found that clown paintings in hospitals, intended to be “nurturing”, were instead found to be frightening by most children.

There was once a time when clowns were one dimensional, their sole purpose being to make children laugh using dramatic, exaggerated slapstick comedy; a tradition that came about in the Victorian era.

So why are we so scared of them now?

David Kiser, a member of the Ringling Brothers, a US travelling circus, explained our fear of clowns in an interview with The Guardian: “clowns hold up a mirror on society, so we can see the absurd in ourselves. So to be afraid of them is ultimately to be afraid of yourself.” Similarly, fear of the unknown – a reason given for xenophobia – is cited as a reason for coulrophobia.

They have often had a darker side in history: in the Middle Ages, jesters who failed to make the king laugh would have the muscles that are used to frown cut, ensuring they smiled all the time.

Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers features a clown – not necessarily scary in appearance – who was based on the son of Joey Grimaldi, one of the first clowns, who followed in his father’s career footsteps, but died from alcoholism in his thirties.

Much like John Wayne Gacy, a clown and children’s entertainer – who became known as “The Killer Clown” after murdering several young men between 1972 and 1978 in Illinois – these men were able to hide a terrible secret behind the white face paint; humour is used to cover up something terrible.

The scary clown we know today draws its characteristics from literature and film; The film Poltergeist features a clown doll which drags a young boy under his bed.

Then four years later, Stephen King’s novel It, about a demon who possesses the body of Pennywise the clown and terrorises a group of teenagers, was released and made into a hit TV mini-series in 1990.

In an interview with, Stephen King explained the reasoning behind choosing a clown to be the main feature in a horror novel: “Kids love clowns but also fear them. Take a little kid to the circus and show him a clown, he’s more apt to scream with fear than laugh.”

It is not just us coulrophobes who are suffering from the epidemic. Professional clowns are also feeling the backlash.

Porotto the Clown defended clowning in an interview with The Guardian: “There are people who use a clown’s costume, but they’re not clowns. We’re people, sharing our feelings with humour and our moods.”

However, not everyone believes that this is the end of clowning. Samantha Holdsworth, the founder of Clowns without Borders who perform for refugee children in crisis zones told The Guardian: “We’ve been around for centuries; long after these bozos in silly masks are gone we’ll still be here sharing laughter and happiness.”

However, King took to Twitter to comment on the epidemic, “Hey, guys, time to cool the clown hysteria–most of em are good, cheer up the kiddies, make people laugh.”

But it’s a little too late when Pennywise lives on in most of our nightmares.



Featured image by Steve Barker via Flickr CC

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