Coulrophobia is a fear of clowns.The
general public has become increasingly aware of this fear in recent years.I believe the word coulrophobia has existed for less than twenty years.I don’t know if there is increased incidence of fear of clowns or if
there is just an increased perception of its existence.I first encountered an adult who was afraid of clowns early in my career
in the mid-1970s.
Coulrophobia can range from a mild discomfort when confronted by an actual
clown to terror of clowns in the abstract.One
day I was picking up some promotional material at a printer.I was in street clothes, not in make up and costume.When I introduced myself to the clerk, he said, “Oh, you are the
clown.”The woman behind me in
line gasped, and asked, “Are you a clown?”When I responded that was my profession she said, “Oh, I’m afraid of
clowns.”Then she got out of line
and went to the other side of the store and stood looking at the wall until I
had left.I did not look like a
clown, but just the knowledge that I sometimes appeared as a clown, was enough
to terrorize her so that she could not look at me.
Through the years I have talked with many adults who are afraid of clowns.Some of them thought they understood what caused their fear.Others did not know what caused it.Here
are some conclusions that I have drawn.
Children around the age of two and three are uncertain around anything
unusual that they don’t understand.At
that age they are uncomfortable around fantasy characters like Santa Claus and
clowns.Children who love watching
Mickey Mouse on television can become terrified when suddenly confronted by a
five-foot tall Mickey Mouse at one of the Disney amusement parks.They do not know what the character will do which causes discomfort.(Some adults say the unpredictability of a clown’s actions is one of
the things that make them uncomfortable.) If
the child is allowed to watch the character from a distance and then approach as
they understand the character is not a threat they frequently overcome their
uneasiness, relax, and enjoy interacting with the character.
Some clowns claim that a certain type of make up design is less
frightening to children of this age.However,
that is not true.Anything that the
child finds unusual can be frightening.I
have seen children afraid of an entertainer wearing only a red nose and no other
make up.I have seen children
quickly warm up to a clown with a make up design that I thought they would
consider scary.The most beloved
clown in the
area is one who goes against all of the common advice for making your make up
The majority of my performances are as a non-verbal character.I discovered that sometimes children of this age found my silence
frightening because they had never experienced somebody who did not speak. In that
circumstance I would always break character, kneel down, speak to them, and then
once they were reassured I would return to my non-verbal performance style.
Children normally outgrow this natural fear unless something happens that
traumatizes them at this stage of their development.It can be an encounter with an untrained clown who does not allow them to
become comfortable with them from a distance.It can be a parent who thrusts a terrified child into Santa’s lap for a
Christmas picture.It can be an
encounter with somebody costumed for Halloween.Any of these kinds of trauma can lock them into a fear of costumed
characters which is expressed most often as a fear of clowns.Frequently the person suffering from this cause of coulrophobia will say
they don’t like clowns because they can’t tell who is hidden behind the make
It is amazing the number of people that I have met who
trace their fear of clowns back to watching Steven King’s "It", a horror
film in which a murderous monster has the appearance of a clown.That movie was originally a television miniseries.I performed a preschool show the morning after the first half was aired.When I arrived, the preschool director told me that there were five
children who did not want to see my show because they had watched “It” the
night before.I could not imagine
parents letting their young children stay up until
to watch what was advertised as a horror movie.
Other negative movie portrayals of clowns have also
contributed to coulrophobia.One
adult told me the clown doll in “Poltergeist” caused them to be afraid of
clowns.I have talked to other
people who have referred to the clowns who were mean to the little elephant in
the Disney film “Dumbo.”Film
makers like the irony of somebody who is supposed to bring happiness being a
source of pain.This can be traced
back to “He Who Gets Slapped”, a silent film movie starring Lon Chaney Sr.
that was released in 1920.In this
film, Chaney played a clown who fell in love with a lovely equestrienne who in
turn was in love with a sadistic lion trainer.The clown kills his rival to protect her.In the 1940 film “The Fat Man”, Emmett Kelly Sr. played a murderer that
uses his stolen funds to buy a circus where he hides out as a clown.A year later, in “The Greatest Show On Earth”, Jimmy Stewart plays a
doctor guilty of a mercy killing hiding out as a clown with the circus.
(Clowns are not the only victims of negative media
portrayals.I talked to a woman who
traces her fear of dentists to the sadistic dentist played by Steve Martin in the
movie “Little Shop of Horrors”.The
same film had a masochist character who went to dentists because he enjoyed the
pain they cause. )
Real life killer
The media image of a killer clown was reality in one case, John Wayne
Cacey.Many people refer to him when
explaining why they don’t like clowns.There
have been many other serial killers with other professions and hobbies, but
because of the irony involved people remember that Cacey was a clown.The true crime book written about him is titled Killer Clown.
The reality is that of the millions of people who have performed as clowns
over the years, only one of them was a serial killer.The majority of clowns really do cause enjoyment.
Clowns used as Bogeyman
One day when I was performing as a clown at the Raging Waters amusement
park, I heard a woman behind me say, “See that clown over there, if you
don’t behave I’m going to ask him to come over and stomp on you with his big
feet.”I knew that if I had turned
around it would have immediately traumatized the child she was talking to, so I
just exited the area.
Unfortunately, that is not as rare an occurrence as you might think.I talked to one man who remembered misbehaving in a grocery store when
they turned a corner and saw an actual dwarf.His mother said, “See that man.If
you don’t obey me you are going to turn out like him.”The next time that boy saw a dwarf was one performing as a clown in a
circus.His fear of dwarves became
generalized into a fear of clowns.
Using clowns as bogeymen is formalized in some cultures.At the Southeast Asian Museum in
I saw masks of clown characters.The
information accompanying the masks said they were used by entertainers to create
laughter during religious ceremonies, but that mothers also used the masks to
discipline their children by warning them that the clowns carried away children
The Potlatch was an important event in the cultural and political life of
tribes.At the Potlatch a person
wearing a Nukmuhl mask (Big Nose) doubled as a clown providing comedy and as the
Sergeant of Arms.The host of the
Potlatch would sometimes hire somebody to misbehave slightly so the clown could
demonstrate the penalty for violating the rules of a potlatch.The discipline might be mild like a child being forced to sit alone in
the center where everyone could see their shame.More severe discipline like beating an adult with a paddle might be
administered by Nukmuhl.
Children often lean to be afraid of the same things their parents are
afraid of.I know a woman who has a
phobia about bees.Her father had a
valid fear of bees because he was allergic to them so a sting could be life
threatening.Bees were harmless to
her because she was not allergic to them.She
had learned to be afraid of bees from her father.Since it was instilled in her as an impressionable child, her fear was
much stronger than her father’s fear of bees.
Some children who were frightened by watching “It” have grown into
adults and passed their fear along to their children who have not had any
traumatic experience with clown characters.
The increased media attention to coulrophobia may also contribute to its
spread.It makes people aware that
others are afraid of clowns so maybe there is a reason to fear them.It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In some groups it is considered hip to dislike clowns.Although they are not actually afraid of clowns they may state that they
are.I believe that this faked fear
of clowns has helped create the perception that it is much more common is true.
By definition a phobia is an irrational fear.There does not have to be a rational cause or explanation.Some people develop coulrophobia without anybody being able to discover
Coulrophobia may be irrational, but it is a very real fear, except where
social status is the cause.The
person affected by it must be respected.They
can not be teased or debated out of their fear.
As in other types of phobias one cure is gradually increased exposure.A first step might be looking at photos of clowns until you feel
comfortable looking at them.The
next step may be watching a performance of a clown on television or watching a
live performance of a clown from a distance, for example, seated in back of a
theater.Then when you feel safe
watching from a distance, you arrange for a closer encounter with a clown.
Something else that some people find reassuring is watching an entertainer
make the transition from their normal appearance into their clown character.That has helped some adults overcome their fear.At times I have started library or preschool shows by applying my make up
to help reassure some children who may still be a little uncertain of clowns.I have heard some clowns disagree with this approach because it breaks
the fantasy of the character, but my experience has been that kids love to
pretend and soon willingly react as if I had always been the fantasy character.
Young children with a mild fear can overcome it by being
reassured.After a recent performance a mother approached me with two young girls.She said, “I wasn’t sure if my daughters would like your show because
they were watching the ‘Airbud’ movie which had a mean clown.”
My response was, “Oh that was Michael Jeter playing the part of the
clown.He pretended to be mean to
make the movie more exciting.He
really isn’t like that at all.Michael
plays another clown character that you may like.He is Mr. Noodle’s brother on the Elmo’s World portion of ‘
“Oh, we love Mr. Noodle.”
“So, when you see a clown being mean in a movie or TV show, remember
that clowns really aren’t like that.They
are just pretending to be like that to make the show more exciting.”
Both girls gave me a hug, and their mother thanked me for explaining that
My wife is a clown who visits hospitals.She does not wear gloves.(One
reason is so she can easily wash her hands to prevent the spread of infection.)If a young child is uncertain of her, she will explain that she is just a
person and is a grandmother.She
lets the children feel her bare hands to confirm that she is somebody dressed up
for fun.Then they relax and enjoy
her magic and comedy.
Coulrophobia is by definition an irrational fear of clowns.It is not caused by clowns themselves except for rare cases where an
untrained person costumed as a clown has acted inappropriately for the
situation.It does not matter what
caused the fear, it is real to the person who has it and affects their life.
Professional clowns are aware audience members may be fearful, respect
that, and will not force themselves upon somebody who is not prepared to enjoy
People who have developed coulrophobia can gradually overcome their fear
if they want to enjoy entertaining performances where clowns may be present.
Copyright 2009 by Bruce “Charlie” Johnson.All rights reserved.