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Metaphysics & Psychology

New study investigates the reasons why we are so scared of clowns

March 6, 2023 · Comment icon 16 comments

Do you suffer from a fear of clowns ? Image Credit: Pixabay / 11697153
Researchers from the University of South Wales wanted to find out exactly what makes clowns in particular so scary.
Are you scared of clowns? You are not alone. Coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns, is a widely acknowledged phenomenon. Studies indicate this fear is present among both adults and children in many different cultures. Yet it is not well understood due to a lack of focused research.

While numerous possible explanations of the phobia had been put forward in academic literature, no studies had specifically investigated its origins. So we set out to discover the reasons people are frightened by clowns, and to understand the psychology behind this. We also wanted to explore how common the fear of clowns is in adults and to look at the severity of the fear in those who reported it.

To do this, we devised a psychometric questionnaire to assess the prevalence and severity of coulrophobia. The Fear of Clowns Questionnaire was completed by an international sample of 987 people aged between 18 and 77.

More than half the respondents (53.5%) said they were scared of clowns at least to some degree, with 5% saying they were "extremely afraid" of them. Interestingly, this percentage reporting an extreme fear of clowns is slightly higher than those reported for many other phobias, such as animals (3.8%), blood/injection/injuries (3.0%), heights (2.8%), still water or weather events (2.3%), closed spaces (2.2%), and flying (1.3%).

We also found that women are more afraid of clowns than men. The reason for this difference is not clear, but it echoes research findings on other phobias such as the fear of snakes and spiders. We also discovered coulrophobia decreases with age, which again matches up with research into other fears.

Origins of this fear

Our next step was to explore the origins of people's fear of clowns. A follow-up questionnaire was given to the 53.5% who had reported at least some degree of clown fear. This new set of questions related to eight plausible explanations for the origins of this fear, as follows:
An eerie or unsettling feeling due to clowns' makeup making them look not-quite-human. A similar response is sometimes seen with dolls or mannequins.
  1. Clowns' exaggerated facial features convey a direct sense of threat.
  2. Clown makeup hides emotional signals and creates uncertainty.
  3. The colour of clown makeup reminds us of death, infection or blood injury, and evokes disgust or avoidance.
  4. Clowns' unpredictable behaviour makes us uncomfortable.
  5. Fear of clowns has been learned from family members.
  6. Negative portrayals of clowns in popular culture.
  7. A frightening experience with a clown.
Intriguingly, we found the final explanation, of having had a scary personal experience with a clown, had the lowest level of agreement. This indicates that life experience alone is not a sufficient explanation for why people are afraid of them.

In contrast, negative portrayals of clowns in popular culture was a much stronger contributing factor towards coulrophobia. This is understandable since some of the most prominent clowns in books and films are designed to be scary - such as Pennywise, the creepy clown from Stephen King's 1986 novel It. (This character most recently featured in two films in 2017 and 2019, with Bill Skarsgård in the starring role.)

However, some people are afraid of Ronald McDonald, the fast food chain mascot, and he is not meant to scare you. This suggests there might be something more fundamental about the way clowns look that unsettles people.

In fact the strongest factor we identified was hidden emotional signals, suggesting that for many people, a fear of clowns stems from not being able to see their facial expressions due to their make-up. We cannot see their "true" faces and therefore cannot understand their emotional intent. So, for example, we don't know whether they have a frown or a furrowed brow, which would indicate anger. Not being able to detect what a clown is thinking or what they might do next makes some of us on edge when we are around them.

This research has provided some new insights into why people are afraid of clowns - yet more questions remain. For instance, if makeup which masks emotions causes fear, do people who have their faces painted as animals also create the same kind of effect? Or is there something more particular about the makeup of clowns that drives this fear? This is now the focus of our continued research.

Sophie Scorey, PhD Researcher, University of South Wales; James Greville, Lecturer in Psychology, University of South Wales; Philip Tyson, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of South Wales, and Shakiela Davies, Lecturer in Clinical Psychology and Mental Health, University of South Wales

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Read the original article. The Conversation

Source: The Conversation | Comments (16)

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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #7 Posted by Piney 1 year ago
It was a good luck symbol in the American Southwest. Then hundreds of saddles, tack, clothing and spurs were destroyed after the war.
Comment icon #8 Posted by pellinore 1 year ago
Is this a genuine entry or spoof, do you think?:Contrary (social role) - Wikipedia
Comment icon #9 Posted by Piney 1 year ago
Genuine. Heyoka societies still exist. Then among the Coastal Algonquian there was Brother Rabbit ( Wehixamukes in Unami Lenape) also known as Crazy Jack who always took everything literally or backwards but won in the end.
Comment icon #10 Posted by Crabby Kitten 1 year ago
I'm not scared of clowns either. I just don't like them, I don't find them funny. 
Comment icon #11 Posted by Susanc241 1 year ago
I am with Crabby Kitten. I am not scared of them, I just don’t find them funny. I don’t like circus type entertainment or pantomimes (U.K. type of theatre) either. Does absolutely nothing for me.
Comment icon #12 Posted by Desertrat56 1 year ago
I like watching rodeo clowns, they are amazing athletes.   The clown suit is to distract you from how good they are.
Comment icon #13 Posted by Tatetopa 1 year ago
My father in law used to say you were not sitting close enough to the arena unless you get bull snot on you. 
Comment icon #14 Posted by Desertrat56 1 year ago
I agree with him.  
Comment icon #15 Posted by darkmoonlady 1 year ago
Most cultures have scary costumed performers for rituals and festivals and most of them are to scare you. Pre modern humans probably enjoyed a good scare, life was terrifying on it's own, at least like Krampus, or other boogeyman types you knew it was your buddy dressed up. Clowns are just a modern interpretation of those kinds of characters. And let's face it, kids don't really like clowns all that much and why should they? Having a big red nosed, brightly colored person standing over you when you're little is scary. 
Comment icon #16 Posted by Desertrat56 1 year ago
Yeah, so it is probably the worst birthday party idea ever to have a clown for a small child's party.   

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