Coulrophobia: Fear of Clowns

Comic: Bizarro (who by the way has a new blog and an upcoming comic show at the Purple Onion in San Francisco on February 22, 2008)

Remember that ailurophobia is the irrational fear of cat? Well, coulrophobia [wiki] is the irrational fear of clowns. It comes from the Greek word kolobathristes meaning one that goes on stilts and phobos meaning fear (the Greeks didn't have a word for clown - the closest thing was those on stilts, i.e. circus performers).

Clown phobia is quite common in small children, but in some, the fear persists well into adulthood. I've read that up to 1 in every 7 people have it to some degree, though the exact number is very hard to pin down.

It's easy to make fun of clown phobia (clever pun, eh?) But it can be quite a dramatic and overpowering fear in adults. Like this lady who is scared to death of clowns:

[YouTube Link]

So why are people afraid of clowns? Most phobia started in childhood, but in some, fear of clown is sparked by reading about one (like the sadistic Pennywise the clown from Stephen King's novel It) or watching one in horror movies, even campy ones (Killer Klowns from Outer Space, anyone?). Indeed, the theme of evil clown [wiki] is quite common in American pop culture.

Perhaps some clowns are truly evil. Like serial killer John Wayne Gacy [wiki] aka The Killer Clown. Gacy, who was convicted for the rape and murder of 33 boys and young men in the 1970s liked to dress up as "Pogo the clown" in neighborhood block parties to entertain little children. After he was caught and convicted, Gacy spent his days on death row painting - you've guessed it - clowns.

John Wayne Gacy's Pogo and Clown Skull
(Photo: Serial Killer Central, who has more of these kinds of morbid art)

People are apt to overanalyze coulrophobia, though they can come up with interesting reasons. Kathryn Cillick at Phobialist came up with this explanation:

I have a theory about the reason for fearing clowns that I thought I would suggest to you. Because clowns have permanent, exaggerated expressions painted on their faces - usually of joy but not always, it renders the observer impotent in measuring facial expression as a precursor of action and for those who are vigilant about their environment, possibly because of past traumatic events, they are unable to interpret and therefore predict what this creature may do to them. This is heightened when we observe the "happy" clown performing some aggressive behavior - it becomes too much to take - creating intense confusion and fear. I don't know if this is the reason - simply my first thoughts on a very intriguing subject.

If you're afraid of clowns, you're not alone: anti-clown celebrities include rapper P. Diddy, Johnny Depp, Carol Burnett and Anthony Bourdain.

Now I don't find clowns scary. I find them creepy. How about you?

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Newest 5 Comments

I'v always been scared of clowns, but from reading the all the diferent comments and watching this video it makes me feel better because I can look at pictures and movies of clowns but if I'm face to face with them I freak out. No offence to the people that have such a serveir fear of clowns but it makes me glad that my fear is not as bad.
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I danced with the devil USMC Vietnam 1968 as Huey doorgunner Marble Mt Mag-16..I can dance with clowns, as long as they aren't pointing a gun at me..
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my phobia is unsetilling by killer clowns and scary movies but normal clowns still creep me out a lot (not as much as killer clowns). it all started when i was 3 and i saw killer clowns from outerspace i would hide behind the couch. then when i was 6 or 7 when i saw mr.jingles that was the most horrifying clown movie i ever saw!
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I have a few phobias. Don't like spiders, centipedes, and I don't particularly dig being in closed in spaces where escape could be difficult,i.e. the back seats of two door cars. So I do understand the clown thing. Especially since the John Wayne Gacy horror story. Clowns are creepy because they are masked, and they are usually adults acting like little children, both of which are weird and unsettling. Like most spiders, they are harmless. And so it goes...
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Clowns creep me out. And I don't mean in the 'Oh! Their so creepy, but not scary!' I am scared to death of clowns. I can't even look at a picture of a clown without feeling like i'm going to puke and scream at the same time. A feeling of need to get away from the tv/picture/clown in question arises. It's horrable. This fear for me has ALWAYS been here. I found out about it at Kings Island (an amusment park) once. And ever since then i've steared away from them. I hate having this fear because a lot of people find it funny. My dad is always drawing pictures of "Killer Clowns" and putting them in my room. And my mom dressed my sister up as a clown for halloween and made me take her Trick or Treating. So...that's all. :D
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