Whether it's Pennywise the Clown from the new IT movie, Pennywise the Clown from the old IT miniseries, The Joker from Batman, or even Doink the Clown from the WWF and WWE, clowns have indisputably become a symbol for fear and unease in pop culture. We've become so inundated with Killer Clowns from Outer Space, Sweet Tooth Clowns from Twisted Metal, and Shaggy 2 Dope Clowns from Michigan that the image of a violent, evil clown has become a tired cliche... so why does it still get to us?
Fear of clowns is so pervasive that there's even an name for it: Coulrophobia, a term that's recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders -- which is about as official as you can get as far as recognition by the mental health community.
But what is it about clowns that make clowns so scary? There's no simple answer. But stick with me, and pretend I'm wearing a labcoat and that I'm like a cool professor you'd want to hang out with, because today we're getting into both the psychology and the HISTORY of clowns as symbols of terror.
There are two sides to consider when it comes to fear of clowns: what's happening in the mind of someone observing a clown... and then what's happening in the mind of the person dressed as clown.
Let's start with the familiar side of things: Your reaction to seeing a clown. We can leapfrog Freud and his definition of the uncanny, and jump straight to a term that's been getting a lot of play lately: the uncanny valley. Coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970, the term refers to the response of revulsion toward something that approaches familiarity but falls just short, inspiring a feeling of unease and displeasure.
You most likely associate this with robots, or bad CG, or Nicolas Cage's acting, but it certainly applies to clowns. Their makeup pushes them just outside the bounds of familiar human identity. While some of this has to do with hair, noses, and big shoes -- the biggest effect comes from the frozen, painted-on expression. Similar to a observing a wax figure, or a mind-bogglingly expensive "realistic" sex doll, the human mind processes the smile of a clown as a broken mechanism of emotion, something that is unwell or incorrect for its inability to change. And like realistic sex dolls, they seem like they just might be sticky.
Now, have you ever found yourself reflexively smiling back at a stranger without realizing it? It's human instinct to automatically respond to emotions, and makeup that dictates or suggests your automatic response (particularly in situations where you may not WANT to smile back) can leave you feeling uneasy, fearful, or frustrated. Our brains are a complex network of neurons firing randomly in a vast, lonely galaxy -- the last thing we need is some creepy fucker wearing facepaint that dictates how we're supposed to feel.
Capping it off is the fundamental disconnect in presented tones. Jerry Robinson, the creator of the Joker (despite what Bob Kane might tell you), studied up on villains at Columbia University. He became convinced that the best villains were those who had inherent contradictions -- let's say a maniacal ne'er-do-well behind a guise of perverted bombastic joy.
But your automatic responses are not all to blame, clowns are fundamentally emboldened by the same thing that upsets us -- the disguise. Basic psychological principles suggest that anonymity is disinhibiting, evidenced in mask wearing criminals, or comments sections on videos about clowns.
This has been proven time and again. There's a 1979 study from Purdue University that showed kids in Halloween masks were more likely to steal extra candy. And then there's even the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment which revealed how quickly normal people given the station of prison wardens are corrupted by power, in no small part due to the mirrored sunglasses they wore.
The costume creates a power dynamic, leaving the poor sucker who is alone in the room with the clown feeling exposed. And if you're alone in a room with a clown, it also probably doesn't help that the clown is most likely holding a big knife and planning to stab you in the face and body until you die.
Okay, so all this information is neat and all, but I don't get it! When did clowns turn "bad"? Wasn't there a time when grandmas roamed the earth as children and clowns were beloved by all? Not exactly.
Clowns were always bad. Okay, maybe not always "bad," but from their first exposure to the world, clowns were typically buffoonish and mischievous, and not someone you necessarily wanted to leave alone with your kids.
While clowns are typically attributed to have risen out of the medieval Court Jester, their roots are actually more accurately pinned to theater of Greek and Roman antiquity. This character archetype was a kind of "rustic fool," later elevated by Shakespeare in the plays Othello and The Winter's Tale.
But it wasn't until the 1800s, that the clown as we know it got its horrible horrible face.
A performer, Joseph Grimaldi, not only invented socalled "whiteface" clown that we all still know today, he sort of set the longlasting precedent of clowns harboring sadness and secret darkness. Although he was estimated to have entertained one eighth of London's population, he died in squalor as in 1837...
Yet the image persisted, and eventually transformed into the now all too familiar turn of the century American circus clown. While this clown may have had some years of youthful naive innocence, or maybe kids in Dustbowl America were still eating too much lead to realize how terrifying they were. After the Great Depression, booming post-war American began to associate the image of the clown with sorrow and desolation.
This image wasn't exactly helped by a string of 33 child murders in the 1970s by one John Wayne Gacy, who had performed at children's parties as Pogo the Clown.
Though his murders weren't necessarily committed in costume or character, he came to be known as "The Killer Clown" and injected a line of fear straight into the public consciousness.
In the following decade, the stage was perfectly set for clowns to become an icon of pop culture terror. The 80s were a time of heightened awareness of child abductions, the pictures of missing kids on milk cartons started in 1984 -- and clowns fit the definition strangers who hid behind a mask of deceitful anonymity and primarily dealt with children.
And so we began to see characters like the killer clown doll in Toby Hooper's 1982 film Poltergeist, or Pennywise the Clown in Stephen King's 1986 horror novel It, and the following miniseries. Over the next few decades, the image of the evil clown calcified in the public consciousness, which takes us to the 2010s where fiction has started spilling over into reality. In 2013 in Northhampton England, a man dressed as a creepy clown and hung around public spaces creating a buzz of horror and mystery, and evidently resulting the man receiving several thousand death threats when his identity was revealed. This escalated into the 2016 worldwide epidemic of creepy clowns popping up... just about everywhere.
We now live in a post-clown world. You're welcome to still be afraid of clowns, but it's about time we all stop pretending that you're even supposed to like them. Multiple recent studies show the majority of children have negative responses to clowns. On top of that, evil clowns in the year of 2017 are no longer a subversion of joyful archetype, but rather an tiresome retread of an archetype that had been recontextualized decades ago. Why are clowns scary? The answer may be actually be disappointingly simple: they're scary because they're supposed to be.