Death wears a smile – Why do we find clowns so creepy?

I have a confession to make: I’m afraid of clowns. It’s not like I have full-blown coulrophobia or anything – but the evil clown archetype really unsettles me, which can be bit of a problem, given how much of a pop culture staple creepy clowns have become.

The recent global phenomenon of creepy clown sightings has only compounded my woes, so on the eve of the Halloween weekend – when I’m almost certain to come face to grease-painted face with one of these monsters – I’m going to confront my fears and try to figure out why these characters designed to amuse children consistently chill the blood of fully grown adults.

Innocence lost


A lot of what you’re about to read comes from research and experts opinions I’ve meticulously pulled together (read: gleaned from Wikipedia). But before we get to that, I’d like to share my own personal theory about why creepy clowns scare us, both in real life and in pop culture.

See, the more I think about, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s something inherently unnerving about taking an innocent concept – in this case, harmless characters designed to make kids laugh – and tweaking just enough that it becomes sinister Why is this so powerful? Partly because it makes us confront the possibility that many things we dismiss as harmless actually conceal something menacing, and partly because it suggests a threat to childhood – and by extension, children – something most people consider the worst scenario imaginable.

Of course, this is just my armchair theorising, and whilst I think it’s a credible theory, it’s probably best if we push on to cover views that are little bit more legitimate…

The “uncanny valley”


One of the more interesting theories to come out of recent research into coulrophobia is that the root cause of a fear of clowns is the so-called “uncanny valley” effect. This is defined as when “…a figure is lifelike enough to be disturbing, but not realistic enough to be pleasant.” Obviously, clowns (even benign ones) fit this bill, what with their oversized hands and feet and distorted facial features.

So basically, if clowns generally give you the creeps, its probably for the exact same reason that CGI Tom Hanks weirded you out in The Polar Express: because you’re seeing something close to – but not exactly the same as – a normal person, and the resulting disparity is unsettling. When you then layer on top the supernatural powers and bloodthirsty tendencies of the evil clown archetype, you’ve got yourself a pretty good recipe for freaking out pretty much anyone, regardless of any existing phobias they might suffer from.

And speaking of bloodthirsty…

Art imitates life


What if the terror we feel when we see a creepy clown doesn’t come from our imaginations? What if it comes from the knowledge that clowns have committed actual murders in real life?

There’s been at least one famous “true crime” example of a killer clown within the last 40 years: notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy. I won’t go into too much detail regarding Gacy’s crimes; suffice it to say, it was pretty sick stuff. Indeed, the nature of Gacy’s crimes, coupled with his “Pogo the Clown” persona, shocked both America and the world to the extent it almost certainly filtered down into the collective consciousness.

The upshot of this was that it influenced those who crafted the pop culture in the years since, (and I’m not just counting those films actually about Gacy), which might explain why pop culture has more creepy clowns now than ever…

If all else fails, blame Stephen King


When all is said and done, it’s possible that I’m over-thinking all of this. That, in the end, the reason why creepy clowns spook us could be down to the simple fact that pop culture has been traumatising us with them for years.

For starters, there’s Batman’s arch nemesis, The Joker, who has been terrorising generations of fans from his first appearance back in 1940 through to the modern era. Heath Ledger’s iconic and chilling portrayal in The Dark Knight is only the latest example of this (and also one of the best). There’s also WWE wrestler Doink the Clown, a malicious character whose cruel pranks allow him to stand out even amongst his decidedly over-the-top peers.

But undoubtedly the best-known fictional evil clown is Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the primary form assumed by demonic shapeshifter It at the heart of Stephen King’s 1986 novel IT. Pennywise was infamously brought to life by Tim Curry in the 1990 TV movie adaptation of King’s novel, and for many people, Curry’s performance remains absolutely terrifying even to this day. It also doesn’t hurt that many of us (including me) caught our first glimpse of IT as impressionable youngsters. This left Pennywise forever etched in our nightmares, and it’s a nightmare we’ll soon relive thanks to the upcoming IT remake starring Bill Skarsgård.

Thanks to Pennywise, Hollywood discovered the true potential for horror lurking under the surface of the painted smile and red nose of every clown. What else could explain the plethora of films starring haunting harlequins that followed, with 2014’s Clown only the most recent instance? Heck, with so many creepy clowns on the loose in pop culture, it’s no wonder people freak out when they encounter one in real life!

So why do clowns creep us out?


After all this speculation, am I prepared to assign blame for our collective fear of clowns to only one of the above factors? Not really, no.

To be honest, I think all of these arguments have some merit to them. What’s more, the ultimate culprit is likely a combination of several factors present to differing degrees across each individual person the world over. While some people might have a big thing about the “uncanny valley” and vivid memories of the Gacy murders, others might find themselves predominantly tormented by the sharp teeth of Pennywise and the subconscious horror of an innocent concept turned very, very bad.

Whatever the reason, all that matters is that clowns do freak us out. So, if it’s all the same to you, I won’t be venturing outside again until the current creepy clown craze is over and done with!

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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