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Clown Phobia

Fear of Clowns

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Updated June 04, 2014

High angle view of a clown playing with children at a birthday party
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Coulrophobia, or fear of clowns, seems to be relatively common. A quick Internet search revealed 16,100 results. There are even websites dedicated to the subject, such as Ihateclowns.com, where coulrophobes gather to share their thoughts. Clowns are common characters at Halloween events such as Universal Orlando's yearly Halloween Horror Nights, which featured a killer clown as its main icon for several years. Clearly, the fear is real.

Nonetheless, very little scientific research has been performed on coulrophobia, so it is difficult to say exactly how common this fear is. However, a January 2008 report from BBC News suggests that clown phobia may be more ingrained than was previously assumed.

That article cites a recent study conducted by University of Sheffield researchers who polled children in several British hospitals about an upcoming hospital redesign. According to the news story, all 250 children (age four to sixteen) expressed a fear or dislike of clowns. The full results of the study have not yet been published.

Widespread Fear of Clowns

Why are we, as a society, collectively afraid of clowns? In a 2004 review article for Trinity University, Joseph Durwin postulates that there are two commonly accepted schools of thought. One is that the fear is based in a negative personal experience with a clown at a young age. The second theory is that mass media has created a hype surrounding evil clowns such that even children who are not personally exposed to clowns are trained to dislike or fear them. However, neither of these theories is entirely satisfactory.

History of the Clown

Durwin continues into an impressive history of the clown, dating back to the jester or fool of ancient times. In those days, the clown was given permission, and even expected, to represent the deviant side of human nature, from openly defying the sexual norms of the day to mocking the gods. As time went on, the jester morphed into the trickster, a more sinister figure with intentions that were less than honorable.

The modern circus clown is an outgrowth of the tramp clowns of the Depression era. Tramp clowns were largely members of the "unsavory" underclass who entertained the more privileged with a caricaturized look at their daily existence. Although most tramp clowns were harmless, a seedy underbelly did exist among the clown circuit.

Weary Willie was the clown alter-ego of the legendary Emmett Kelly. While Kelly achieved stardom with his character, his personal life was a mess. His wife eventually filed for divorce, claiming that the character had taken over her husband's personality. Their son, Emmett Kelly, Jr., took over the role on his father's retirement. Kelly, Jr. took the character to even greater heights, but his wife, too, felt that Weary Willie eventually overtook Kelly, Jr.'s personality.

In the 1970s, two events occurred that may have fueled our collective fear of clowns. Paul Kelly, the son of Emmett Kelly, Jr., lost a leg in a train accident. Nevertheless, he eventually came to the conclusion that he needed to become the next incarnation of Willie. He began calling himself Emmett Kelly III and performing as Weary Willie. Simultaneously, he slid into a life of drugs and sexual freedom. In 1978, Kelly III was arrested for the murders of two of his homosexual partners. He admitted to the slayings, but listed "Willie" as an accomplice.

Eventually, Kelly III was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. Willie had apparently taken over his personality as he had those of Kelly's father and grandfather. Although this sort of case appears to be isolated, and most clowns do not show deviant behavior, the case was reminiscent of the malevolent trickster archetype of earlier lore.

The highly publicized murders committed by John Wayne Gacy also took place in the 1970s. From 1975 to 1978, Gacy sodomized and killed at least 33 boys and young men in the Chicago area. Although Gacy never worked as a professional clown, he did perform on a volunteer basis. This connection has been played up over the years in movies and films about the crimes.

By the 1980s, clown phobia had reached a peak. Rumors of ritual abuse of children were rampant, and clowns figured heavily into many of the stories. Spontaneous reports of clown harassment began pouring in from children nationwide. Even urban legends began to focus on killer clowns lying in wait for hapless babysitters. Soon Stephen King tapped into the national consciousness with the definitive killer clown work of fiction, "It."

Killer Clowns and Circus Clowns

In the decades that followed, killer clowns have become a part of our human mythos. At Halloween events -- from small town carnivals to internationally known destination haunts such as Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights -- killer clowns are almost always a part of the festivities. Yet the killer clown's innocent cousin, the circus clown, continues to delight and amaze the young and the young at heart.

How can we justify this seemingly incompatible coexistence? A possible explanation can be found by looking to the past. Throughout history, clowns have represented the side of us that is not acceptable to society. That side is formed from our most primal urges and is not always neat or pretty. Perhaps the clown both attracts and repels us because he or she holds up a mirror to our inner selves.

Interestingly, the circus clown can be just as scary as the killer clown to those with full-blown coulrophobia. For those who fear all clowns, even attending a circus can be fraught with anxiety. Thankfully, you can minimize your exposure by sitting further back in the arena, taking an aisle seat for a faster escape, and exiting the theater just before intermission, when clowns often perform.

Until more research is performed, the causes of clown phobia will remain firmly in the realm of speculation. Fortunately, it is possible for mental health professionals to treat clown phobia, as any other phobia, without learning the precise reasons for its development.

Source:

Durwin, J. Coulrophobia and the Trickster. Trickster's Way. 2004. 3:1. April 24, 2008. http://dspace.nitle.org/bitstream/10090/355/2/fulltext.pdf

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