23 June 2023

Fear of Clowns

Welcome back. Seeing “clowns” in the blog post title, you of course think I’m writing about politicians. Good guess, but not this time. I’m really writing about clowns.

My appreciation of clowns began in the early days of television. I can still remember the Howdy Doody Show with Clarabell the clown. And the joy of being taken to the circus when it was nearby boosted that appreciation as did taking my daughter or son years later. 

The Howdy Doody Show, 1947-1960, with (right to left) Buffalo Bob Smith, Howdy and Clarabell, who only mimed to communicate and was played by three actors over the years (photo from m.imdb.com/title/tt0165594/mediaviewer/rm3628482304).
In fact, I only learned that people could be afraid of clowns from an episode of the television series Bones. The male lead, FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth, was portrayed as suffering from coulrophobia (extreme or irrational fear of clowns). That episode, “The Mummy in The Maze,” aired in 2007, though I have no idea when we watched it. 

Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz from long-running TV show Bones
photo from www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/bones/s10
All that aside, I must admit that I overlooked “Clowns” in the citation of my October 2015 blog post, This is Scary! That post reviewed the Chapman University Survey of American Fears of April 2015. The survey sampled 1,541 U.S. adults, asking their level of fear about 88 different fears, including clowns. How did I miss it? I focused, as the survey did, on the top 10 fears. Only 6.8% of respondents reported being afraid or very afraid of clowns, placing clowns near the bottom of the list. Subsequent Chapman University Surveys of American Fears didn’t change clown’s ranking significantly--2017, #76 of 80 fears, with 6.7%; 2019, #85 of 88 fears, with 8.2%.

Fear of Clowns Study

A team of researchers with the UK’s University of South Wales set out to determine why people in many different cultures are frightened by clowns. The researchers devised a Fear of Clowns Questionnaire to assess the prevalence and severity of coulrophobia. They surveyed an opportunist sample of 987 international participants, 790 females and 197 males age 18 to 77 (mean 29.8).

More than half of the participants (53.5%) reported being scared of clowns to some degree, with 5% saying they were “extremely afraid” of them. (5% is slightly higher than the percentage reported for extreme fear with many other phobias, such as heights, 2.8%, closed spaces, 2.2%, and flying, 1.3%.)

The survey also showed that females were more afraid of clowns than males. Although the reason is unclear, that echoes phobias such as the fear of snakes and spiders. Coulrophobia was also found to decrease with age as do other phobias.

Seeking the Fear’s Origins
The researchers prepared a follow-up questionnaire relating to eight possible explanations for the fear’s origins for those participants who reported at least some degree of clown fear. 

Possible explanations for the origins of clown fear (from www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00207411.2022.2046925?scroll=top&needAccess=true&role=tab).
Of the eight explanations, a frightening experience with a clown ranked lowest, suggesting that life experience alone does not explain the fear. In contrast, negative portrayals of clowns in popular culture was a much stronger contributing factor. Most notable is the fear-inducing clown “Pennywise” from the 2017 and 2019 movies based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel “It.” Even there, however, some people fear Ronald McDonald, which suggests there might be something more fundamental about the way clowns look.

The evil clown Pennywise from the movie It (photo from Pennywise’s Facebook page www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=277351666103104&set=ecnf.100077942030166).

The strongest factor identified was hidden emotional signals. For many people, a fear of clowns arises from not being able to see their expressions because of make-up. Failing to see their true faces, we cannot understand their emotional intent. Not knowing what clown are thinking or what they might do next keeps some of us on edge when we are around them.

Wrap Up
The study provides insights into why some people fear clowns, yet questions remain. For example, if clown makeup causes fear by hiding emotions, is there something specific about clown makeup or does other face painting also create a negative affect?

In any event, as much as I empathize with peoples’ fears, I’ll skip the horror stories and movies with or without creepy, threatening clowns. I’m content with all of my happy clown memories. Thanks for stopping by.


Fear of clowns study in International Journal of Mental Health: www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00207411.2022.2046925?scroll=top&needAccess=true&role=tab
Article on study on The Conversation website: theconversation.com/why-are-we-so-scared-of-clowns-heres-what-weve-discovered-199352
Chapman University Survey of American Fears
2015: blogs.chapman.edu/wilkinson/2015/10/13/americas-top-fears-2015/
2017: blogs.chapman.edu/wilkinson/2017/10/11/americas-top-fears-2017/
2019: www.chapman.edu/wilkinson/research-centers/babbie-center/_files/americas-top-fears-2019.pdf

No comments:

Post a Comment