Clowns are typically portrayed as figures of humour, a form of almost excessive slapstick comedy in many cases. And yet, people have been terrified by them for years. Given the recent “killer clown” phenomenon, the fear of clowns is probably at an all time high, but the wide scale presence of a fear of clowns has been present in society for a much longer period. In fact, the fear of clowns has become prevalent enough that it’s been given a scientific name: coulrophobia.
Some of the more recent causes of coulrophobia can be found in the media. Clowns are present in sinister roles in several modern films and books. Notable examples include the Joker from the Batman franchise and the title character of Stephen King’s It, though there are also dedicated clown horror films such as Amusement (2008) and Clownhouse (1989). However, these roles probably came about due to an already present fear of clowns.
Part of the reason we fear clowns appears to be their make up. There is a fear of the unknown because we don’t know what lies behind the mask and the perpetual smile. Their make up drops clowns into an uncanny valley; the face is familiar but just far away from normal to become terrifying (perhaps something for you to bear in mind when choosing a Halloween costume).
Clowns also operate outside of the established systems of social behaviour, and interact with complete strangers with ease. People may be disturbed by this abstract behaviour as it leaves them unsure of what to expect, which leads back into the fear of the unknown.
There is also a historical aspect to the possible root of this fear. Medieval clowns, while used as entertainment, also often had a certain level of truth in their performance that may have disturbed others, reminding them of their own mortality and pettiness. This appears to have continued for some time and can be seen in some of the works of Shakespeare such as the Fool in King Lear, where clowns and jesters can often be associated with uncomfortable truths and in some cases, even death.