Why you should care
Because you should know why they make you scream.
Rubber noses and oversize shoes are collecting dust as professional clowns whiz around town in tiny cars looking for temp jobs. Their seltzer bottles are filled with malt liquor, purely for personal use to drown their sorrows over lack of work— all because fear of them has gripped the world.
From terrorism and climate change to crushing debt and a presidential candidate who throws around words like “bigly,” we are afraid. But beyond existential or political threats there is one fear that has captured the world unlike any other: coulrophobia. And now, thanks to an extremist minority, clown hysteria is reaching fever pitch.
The first sightings came a few weeks back, in South Carolina, where terrifying jesters attempted to lure a boy into the woods. Since then, the horrifying harlequins have turned up across the pond, leaving one man stabbed, the world shaken and hundreds of professional clowns speechless. The jury’s still out on whether these sightings add up to a legitimate menace or simply Internet-fueled hysteria. But one thing is clear: Clowns are terrifying.
It’s difficult to infer whether that person with the painted-on smile intends to give us candy … or throw us in the car trunk.
Brent McBeth, a professional clown with the Big Apple Circus, believes our anxiety stems in part from the invasive nature of clown performances. “They rush into your personal space,” he says. Who, after all, likes getting a pie in the face or being sprayed with seltzer? “Being forced into interaction with someone you don’t know can be terrifying,” McBeth adds. Being made the center of attention can be nearly as mortifying as being lured into a forest. Many initial interactions with clowns are far from positive experiences.
But clowns have feelings too. “Most comedy comes from pain,” McBeth says, echoing that maxim about tragedy plus timing equaling comedy. The “best comedians in the world are pretty dark on the inside,” he adds, admitting “that doesn’t help.” This darkness has been echoed throughout the history of modern clowning.
The exaggerated features and white face paint of today’s clowns were pioneered by Joseph Grimaldi, who, in the early 1800s, evolved the popular Harlequin of English pantomimes. Grimaldi’s life, though, was far from a circus. Throughout his career, the London-born funnyman was prone to bouts of depression, which he poked fun at in his memoirs, writing, “Grim all day, but makes you laugh at night.” His life grew even grimmer with the deaths of his wife, in childbirth, and, later, of his only child, to alcoholism. Grimaldi himself died nearly crippled from his backbreaking slapstick pratfalls and penniless from his inability to perform. If tragedy makes a great comedian, it’s no wonder that modern clowns call themselves “Joeys” after Grimaldi.
More recently, the mythos of the terrifying clown comes to us thanks to serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who sexually assaulted and murdered 33 teenage boys in the 1970s. Gacy’s crimes were committed while he was dressed up and performing as “Pogo the Clown,” which provided more than enough nightmare fuel to turn the “psychotic clown” into a classic scary-movie trope. Master of horror Stephen King has explained that he chose Pennywise the Clown for his classic novel It because young people both love and fear clowns. But unease with these colorful caricatures stems from far more than pop culture and history; it dives deep into our psychology.
Much of human interaction boils down to being able to read facial cues. The exaggerated makeup and actions of a clown disrupt our ability to do that, creating a cognitive dissonance that Sigmund Freud called “uncanny.” Freud was referring to something “familiar, yet incongruous … due to the paradoxical nature of being simultaneously attracted to yet repulsed by an object.” We know that a clown is nothing more than a person in costume, but it’s difficult to infer whether that person with the painted-on smile intends to give us candy … or throw us in the car trunk.
This same effect is responsible for the “uncanny valley” — that sense of unease some get when faced with a being that’s almost human, but not quite. Roboticist Masahiro Mori noticed that as robots become more lifelike, they make humans more uneasy. “The appearance is quite humanlike, but the familiarity is negative,” Mori wrote. “This is the uncanny valley.”
While clown hysteria rages, rest assured that you’re not alone. The uncanny is a very real psychological effect that when coupled with history and horror films, makes for hysteria. One day it might be robots lurking at the edge of the woods instead, perhaps offering to upgrade our smartphones. And maybe then the world’s clowns can return to what they do best: turning tragedy into laughter.