What psychology tells us about why clowns scare us so much

Hollywood has long exploited our deep distrust of clowns and the movie billboard for this fall is no different. The Joker, Bátman's insane nemesis played by Joaquin Phoenix, is the antihero in the film about its origins: Joker, released in cinemas on October 4. While in September Pennywise, the cursed clown of Stephen King, made his second appearance on the big screen in two years with the film It Chapter Two.

How could it be that one of the protagonists of children's birthday parties has become the embodiment of pure evil? In fact, in a 2008 study in England, it was concluded that very few children like clowns. He also concluded that the common practice of decorating children's rooms in hospitals with images of clowns can create the exact opposite of an environment conducive to children. No wonder so many people hate McDonald's clown.

But as a psychologist, my interest is not based solely on pointing out that clowns they give us chills; I am also interested in understanding why we find it so disturbing. In 2016, I published a study entitled "On the nature of the spooky" with one of my students, Sara Koehnke, in the academic journal New Ideas in Psychology. Although the study did not focus specifically on how chilling clowns can be, much of what we discover can help explain this intriguing phenomenon.

The march of the clowns

Clowns have been around as characters for thousands of years. Historically, jesters and clowns have been a vehicle for the satire and mockery of the most powerful, providing a safe way to let off steam with a unique freedom of expression, as long as their value as artists was greater than the inconvenience they could cause to those above.


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The jesters and other ridiculous masters date back at least to ancient Egypt and the English word "clown" first appeared in the 16th century when Shakespeare used the term to describe silly characters in several of his works. What we know as a circus clown (with his face painted, wig and oversized clothing) appeared in the 19th century and has only changed slightly in the last 150 years. Nor is the idea of ​​the evil clown new. In 2016, writer Benjamin Radford published the book "Bad Clowns", where he traces the historical evolution of clowns in unpredictable and threatening creatures.

The scary clown character became a reality after serial killer John Wayne Gacy was captured. In the 70s, Gacy appeared at children's birthday parties as "Pogo the Clown", also painting portraits of clowns regularly. When authorities discovered that he had killed at least 33 people, burying most of them in the basement of his home outside Chicago, the connection between clowns and dangerous psychopathic behavior was forever marked in the collective unconscious of Americans

More recently, for several months in 2016, several chilling clowns terrorized the United States.

- What psychology tells us about why clowns scare us so much (Chris Barbalis / Unsplash)

There were complaints in at least 10 different states in the United States: Florida saw devilish clowns hanging around the side of the road, while in South Carolina it is said that clowns were trying to attract women and children to the forest. It is not entirely clear which of these stories they were clowned and what were real threats of attempted kidnapping. However, the perpetrators of these stories seem to take advantage of that primary fear that so many children (and even adults) experience in the presence of a clown.

The nature of the horrifying

Psychology can help us in explaining why clowns (those supposed joke and joke machines) often end up making us feel chills in the back. My research was the first empirical study on the things that are spooky to us and I had a feeling that this feeling of fear might have something to do with ambiguity about not really being sure how to react to a person or situation.

We recruit to 1,341 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 77 to complete an online survey. In the first section of the survey, our participants assessed the probability that a hypothetical "creepy person" exhibited 44 different behaviors, such as unusual forms of eye contact or physical characteristics such as visible tattoos. In the second section of the survey, participants assessed how chilling were 21 different professions and in the third section they simply had to list two hobbies that seemed horrifying to them. In the last section of the survey, participants pointed out whether or not they agreed with 15 statements about the nature of the spooky people.


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The results indicated that the people we perceive as creepy are much more likely to be men than women, that unpredictability is an important component of the horrifying thing and that unusual patterns of eye contact and other nonverbal behaviors make the terror alarm go off in our heads Unusual or strange physical characteristics such as bulging eyes, a peculiar smile or disproportionately long fingers did not, by themselves, perceive a person as creepy.

However, the presence of strange physical traits It can amplify any other creepy trend that the person may be exhibiting, such as persistently directing conversations towards peculiar sexual issues or not understanding the rules that it is forbidden to bring reptiles to the office.

- What psychology tells us about why clowns scare us so much (Matt W Newman / Unsplash)

When we asked people to rate how spooky were different job professions, the one that took the palm was, as you probably would have guessed, the clown profession. The results coincide with my theory that "getting scared" is a response mechanism to the ambiguity of the threat and that only when we face uncertainty about a threat do we feel chills.

For example, it would be impolite and strange to run away in the middle of a conversation with someone who gives us a bad feeling, but in reality it is a harmless person; At the same time, it could be dangerous to ignore our intuition and continue dealing with that person if it really turns out to be a threat. This ambivalence is what paralyzes you at the moment, making you feel discomfort. This reaction could be adaptive, something that humans have evolved to feel, with the fact that they are "scared" as a way of maintaining alertness during a situation that could be dangerous.

This reaction may be an adaptive mechanism, something that humans have evolved to be able to feel in a situation where we are "scared" as a way to stay alert when a situation may be dangerous.

Why clowns put us on alert

In the light of the results of our investigation, it is not surprising at all that the clowns are creepy. Rami Nader is a Canadian psychologist expert in coulrophobia, the irrational fear of clowns. Nader believes that phobias towards clowns are reinforced by the fact that clowns wear makeup and costumes to hide their true identities and feelings.

This is something that fits perfectly with my hypothesis. of that ambiguity inherent that surrounds clowns which makes us creepy. They seem to be happy, but are they really? They are also naughty, which causes people to be on guard. People who interact with a clown during one of their functions never know if they are about to receive a cake on their faces or if they are going to be victims of some other kind of humiliating joke. The unusual physical characteristics of a clown (such as a wig, red nose, makeup and strange clothes) only magnify the uncertainty of what the clown could do next.

It is true that there are other types of people that scare us: taxidermists and undertakers have it easy to make us see how spooky their profession can be. However, they still have a lot to do if they aspire to reach the level of horror that we automatically attribute to the clowns. The truth is that the clowns have set the bar high.

- What psychology tells us about why clowns scare us so much


Image: Andrés Gómez / Unsplash

Author: Frank T. McAndrew, professor at Knox College.

This article has originally been published in The Conversation. You can read the original article here.

Translated by Silvestre Urbón.

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