Mrch 22, 2023
Are you scared of clowns? You are not alone. Coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns, is a widely acknowledged phenomenon. Studies have found that this fear is present among both adults and children in many different cultures. Yet it is not well understood due to a lack of focused research, reports The Conversation.
While numerous possible explanations of the phobia had been put forward in academic literature, no studies have specifically investigated its origins. To do so, The Conversation devised a psychometric questionnaire to assess the prevalence and severity of coulrophobia. The Fear of Clowns Questionnaire was completed by an international sample of 987 respondents, aged between 18 and 77.
More than half of the respondents (53.5%) said they were scared of clowns at least to some degree, with 5% saying they were “extremely afraid” of them. Interestingly, the percentage reporting an extreme fear of clowns is slightly higher than those reported for many other phobias, such as fear of animals (3.8%), blood/injection/injuries (3.0%), heights (2.8%), still water or weather events (2.3%), closed spaces (2.2%), and flying (1.3%).
What’s more, higher numbers of women are afraid of clowns than men. The reason for this difference is not clear, but it echoes research findings on other phobias, such as the fear of snakes and spiders. The researchers also discovered that coulrophobia decreases with age, which again matches up with research into other fears.
Origins of this fear
The researchers’ next step was to explore the origins of people’s fear of clowns. A follow-up questionnaire was given to the 53.5% who had reported at least some degree of clown fear. This new set of questions related to eight plausible explanations for the origins of this fear, as follows:
- An eerie or unsettling feeling, caused by the clowns’ makeup, which makes them look not-quite-human. A similar response is sometimes seen with dolls or mannequins.
- Clowns’ exaggerated facial features convey a direct sense of threat.
- Clown makeup hides emotional signals and creates uncertainty.
- The color of clown makeup reminds us of death, infection, or blood injury; and evokes disgust or avoidance.
- Clowns’ unpredictable behavior makes us uncomfortable.
- Fear of clowns has been learned from family members.
- Negative portrayals of clowns in popular culture have affected our viewpoints.
- A frightening experience with a clown.
Intriguingly, we found the final explanation, of having had a scary personal experience with a clown, had the lowest level of agreement. This indicates that life experience alone is not a sufficient explanation for why people are afraid of them.
By contrast, negative portrayals of clowns in popular culture represented a much stronger contributing factor towards coulrophobia. This is understandable, the researchers say, since some of the most prominent clowns in books and films are designed to be scary— such as Pennywise, the creepy clown from Stephen King’s 1986 novel It. (This character most recently featured in two films, in 2017 and 2019.)
However, 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.
In fact the strongest factor we identified was hidden emotional signals, suggesting that for many people, a fear of clowns stems from not being able to see their facial expressions due to their make-up. We cannot see their “true” faces and therefore cannot understand their emotional intent.
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.
Research contact: @TheConversation