There’s nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight – Lon Chaney
With Halloween just around the corner and the latest clown craze hitting American and United Kingdom cities, it seems like a great time to talk about clowns. More specifically, about fear of clowns, which I recently found out there’s a term for: clourophobia. While it’s always been pretty clear to me why a dead corpse running around or a doll whose neck is able to make a 360º turn is downright scary, the reason why the old-time childhood entertainers are creepy has always been a mystery. I, for one, don’t like clowns but can’t seem to be able to pinpoint what is wrong with them. White faces, red foam noses, big shoes and colorful clothes does not scream fear to me. Yet you don’t even have to include a knife or a dark alley for a clown to come off as creepy, simply look at this 10-year-old version of me dressed up as a clown. Not cute.
I am apparently not alone in this. In a recent study researchers asked 1341 individuals to rate the creepiness of different professions using a scale from 1 (not very creepy) to 5 (very creepy). Clowns came in first, followed closely by taxidermists, sex-shop owners and funeral directors . Even those who are supposed to like clowns – kids – apparently don’t either. In a 2008 survey of 250 kids aged 4 to 16, they found that kids aren’t keen on the circus entertainers .
But really, what happened to the image of kid-friendly clowns at birthday parties happily blowing up balloons? Did Pennywise ruin it for us all?
Pennywise, the child-murdering clown that appears in Stephen King’s novel It, is perhaps one of the most famous terrifying clowns in history and the main character of many people’s nightmares. The novel It, which contains about 1200 pages of pure horror, was made into a TV miniseries that helped everyone put a face to the sinister clown (as if we needed that). It came out only a few years after a real life serial killer, known as the Killer clown, terrorized America. John Wayne Gacy, whose hobby was to entertain kids at birthday parties dressed up as a clown, was responsible for murdering 33 teenagers. The evil clown notion took off after Gacy and It, and since then clowns have been honor guests at horror movies.
The fact that creepy clowns are featured so often in movies has certainly not helped. Long gone are the images of happy clowns playing tricks on kids; replaced by clowns with knifes and machetes luring children into the woods. This somewhat recent negative view of clowns has had a tremendous negative impact on clowning as a profession. There has been a decline of attendees at clown conventions and workshops, which leaves us with fewer chances of seeing clowns in safe, fun and happy contexts. Psychologists think that this is creating a vicious circle of clown fear: negative images are replacing positive clown images, leading to strong negative associations with clowns which in turn creates more fear of clowns and reinforces the evil clown image .
Psychology behind creepy clowns
However, let’s say you’ve never heard of Gacy or read It, so your brain has never created this negative connection, you might still in most likelihood find clowns creepy [1, 2 or go back to Figure 1 for confirmation]. While there isn’t a consensus amongst psychologists on why clowns strike us as scary, there are two prominent hypotheses. Hypothesis one proposes that part of the clown’s ability to provoke fear comes from the paint covering their faces. White paint background together with distorted and exaggerated eyes, mouth and nose, makes it impossible to genuinely read facial expressions on a clown’s face. We are constantly picking up the smallest almost imperceptible changes in people’s faces – how the corner of the mouth turns up or an eyebrow that slightly raises. Faces have a social significance and are crucial components of human communication .
So when our brains are faced with a somewhat masked expression, the ambiguity it creates spikes our fear. Similarly, many other monsters of horror films hide their faces behind masks; from the killer of Scream to the Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [4-5]. Add the impossibility of reading a clown’s intention together with their trying a little too hard to make you laugh or play tricks on you and you got the perfect combo for unease.
Alternatively, perhaps the same phenomenon why other horrifying creatures freak us out is to blame for our fear of clowns. According to some psychologists, clowns are creepy because they fall, together with zombies, vampires and evil dolls, into what’s known as the uncanny valley. The robotics professor Masahiro Mori coined the uncanny valley hypothesis in the 70s as a design principle in the field of robotics and computer animation. It proposes that seeing a human-like entity can evoke positive or negative feelings depending on the object’s degree of physical similarity to human appearance. Theoretically, the more human-like an object is, the more we like it. However when the entity reaches a point in which it becomes hyper-realistic it triggers raised perceptual expectations in our brains – for example, we are expecting a particular skin tone or size of precise body parts – and when these expectations are not met, an uncomfortable feeling arises. Essentially, creatures that look almost exactly like us humans but not quite evoke an unsettling familiarity that can lead to a scary reaction. In this sense, a clown’s face with familiar facial features that are exaggerated using makeup and a normal sized body with disproportionate big shoes exemplify this uncanny notion [5-8]. This discomfort or uncanny feeling is represented as a sharp negative peak or valley in Figure 2.
Although the uncanny valley phenomenon has been described for years, we still don’t know what’s going on in our brains that accounts for this switch from a familiar to an unsettling and creepy feeling.
A recent study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to explore what brain areas light up when people experience this uncanny feeling. Subjects were shown videos of familiar actions (nodding, waving, taking a drink, etc.) performed by a human, a very human-like android or the skinned version of the android revealing its wires and metal joints. What researchers found was that brain regions involved in perception of movement and visual recognition are activated more when people look at the android versus the robot or the real person. Seeing something that looks almost human, but not quite causes a perceptual mismatch and it’s like our brains are working harder to make sense of it .
Despite all this, and although that survey reported kids don’t actually like clowns, a couple of recent studies have shown that therapeutic clowns reduce pre-operative anxiety and help hospitalized kids get better [10,11]. So fear not, there might still be a little hope for clowns if we hold on to the Patch Adams spirit. In the meantime, do everyone a favor and do not dress up as a creepy clown this Halloween please. Although it might be already inevitable.
 McAndrew FT and Koehnke SS. On the nature of creepiness. (2016). New Ideas in Psychology, 43, 10-15.
 Rodriguez-McRobbie L. The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary. At the Smithsonian.com: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-history-and-psychology-of-clowns-being-scary-20394516/?no-ist
 Honingmann JJ. The Masked Face. (1977). Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, 5, 263-280. Available: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/eth.1977.5.3.02a00020/abstract
 Jarrett C. The Lure of Horror. (2011). The Psychologist, 24, 812-815. Available: http://faculty.uml.edu/bmarshall/LureofHorror.pdf
 Pollick, FE. In Search of the Uncanny Valley. 40, Chapter 8, 69-78. Available: http://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~frank/Documents/InSearchUncannyValley.pdf
 Clasen M. Can’t Sleep, Clowns Will Eat me: Telling Scary Stories. Available: http://pure.au.dk/portal/files/44775468/Clasen_Clowns_2012_uncorrected_proofs.pdf
 Cheetham M, Suter P and Jäncke L. The human likeness dimension of the “uncanny valley hypothesis”: behavioral and functional MRI findings. (2011). Frontiers in Human Neurosciences. http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2011.00126/full
 Saygin AP, Chaminade T, Ishiguro H, Driver J and Frith C. The thing that should not be: predictive coding and the uncanny valley in perceiving human and humanoid robot actions. (2012). Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7(4), 413-322.
 Bertini M, Isola E, Paolone G and Curcio G. Clowns benefit Children Hospitalized for Respiratory Pathologies. (2011). Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3137769/
 Vagnoli L, Caprilli S, and Messeri A. Parental presence, clowns or sedative premedication to treat preoperative anxiety in children: what could be the most promising option? (2010). Pediatric Anesthesia, 20 (10), 937-943.