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Coulrophobia: The Fear of Clowns

Most people are surprised to learn that a very large number of children and adults are scared of clowns, some to a degree that over powers and incapacitates them. Instead of laughing or smiling, children often let out a scream of terror or start crying when a clown appears close to them. Even many adults become frozen with fear when a clown approaches. This fear of clowns in called ‘coulrophobia’ which comes from the Greek ‘kolobathristes’ which means ‘the man on stilts’ and ‘phobos’ which means fear.

Why these folks are scared of clowns is a complicated issue but most psychologists agree that it probably starts when we are very young. When infants are just beginning to connect facial features of their parents with their comfort, the severely exaggerated features of a clown can cause a lot of confusion and fear. Some of these cases may cause deep impressions that can carry through to late adulthood.

The clown or jester of old was usually expected to be earthy, play pranks on people, causing them discomfort and embarrassment while exploring the darker side of human nature and seeking to mock all kinds of authority. He was the ‘bad boy’ personified and often made it his art to connect ‘funny’ with ‘physical pain’. For example if he caused someone to fall and cry out on being hurt, the clown would laugh and encourage others to do so too.

If someone fell subsequently, even years later, the pain could remind him or her of the merriment that the clown ѕhowed and this could cause negative feelings towards clowns in general, likely an active resentment and fear.

Even the make up and costumes that clowns wear have a negative effect on people. The most prominent feature that seems unsettling to many is the large, painted-on smile. Often, a clown could be seriously dead pan while doing something like juggling knives but his face was meant to convey a picture of happiness and joy. Up close, this could seem like an extremely disturbing sign of deception, specially if the clown happened to be frowning! Also, this picture of an eternally smiling face has an element of deceit built in because it is so unnatural

In modern times, the movies have capitalized on this fear of clowns by creating specially violent and evil people disguised as clowns, ranging from bank robbers who want to hide their faces and draw attention away from other activity to their clown faces to The Joker of the Batman series of movies and the killer clown in “It”. All of this further entrenches coulrophobia among those of us who suffer from it.

So if you are afraid of clowns, you don’t need to feel embarrassed about it–you have a lot of company.