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:
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?