10 Real Reasons Clowns Freak Us Out

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In 2014, a spokesperson for Clowns of America International named Glenn Kohlberger contacted publications such as The Hollywood Reporter to express grievances over the character Twisty in the TV program American Horror Story. He said that a portrayal of a person dressed as a clown, committing mass murder, was only going to make it harder for clowns to provide entertainment for sick children in hospitals.

Inevitably, people pointed out to him that these complaints were much too little and far too late if he seriously hoped to improve the cultural perception of clowns. It would take a generation of miracles to change the public’s mind about them. But why is this the case? Why don’t we have similar stigmas against acrobats, magicians, and other people with unusual costumes that entertain children? Let’s look into it.

10. Celebrity Clown that Launched a Stereotype

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We have a common stereotype that clowns are dysfunctional, unhappy, probably unbalanced adults in their personal lives. Look at Krusty the Clown in The Simpsons. Turns out, this ironic perspective dates back to the origin of modern clowning in the early part of the nineteenth century. In the city of London a figure named Joseph Grimaldi rose to amazing prominence as a clown, due to both being an exceptional pantomime comedian and probably even more because he raised the bar for performing in costume. He wore full makeup over his entire head and had blue hair to go with his colorful outfits. It struck enough of a chord with audiences that more than ten percent of the city was his audience.

But as is so often the case, behind the scenes was not only a less pleasant story but actually a tragic one. Grimaldi was a severe alcoholic. In fact not merely severe, but one with such a destructive habit that he died from it in 1837. It was no secret, either. Charles Dickens wrote a serialized novel transparently inspired by Grimaldi called The Pickwick Papers. Even Grimaldi seemed to sort of get in on the act, having Dickens edit his memoirs, and joking about it while onstage. And so the image that beneath the grease paint, clowns are unhappy people, was drilled into the public’s consciousness.

9. Clowns Originally Were Not Fun Kid’s Characters

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While we think that these performers are mostly kid’s stuff aside from novelty acts that deliberately play off that, in antiquity clowns were much more ambiguous. As Benjamin Radford explains in his book Bad Clowns, clowns weren’t so much figures for children to laugh at for their silly behavior, as they were imps. They were trickster spirits that were just as likely to do something malicious as fun. That’s not a good setup for someone that young children are supposed to feel comfortable around.

In some societies, such as Native American tribes like the Pueblo and Apache, clowns were part of spiritual ceremonies, and even there they were a mixed bag. While during rituals they were supposed to try to make people laugh with jokes and antics, they were known to have a much worse side. A tribe known as the Hactcin, for one, was recorded attacking white people and Mexicans who went near their rituals with whips to drive them away, supposedly being willing to kill people that they caught spying on them. So the notion of clowns being willing to do unsavory things is much older and exists even in smaller, relatively isolated communities.

8. Clown Makeup is in the Uncanny Valley

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Some writers like to exaggerate the potentially off-putting nature of clown makeup. They’ll insist that the whiteness of skin paint makes the skin look like that of a corpse, or that the red lips look like blood. But the real creepiness of clown makeup isn’t in its excess. It comes from subtle more subtle differences. The face of a clown looks just enough like a regular person that its the differences that make it all the worse. This is what we call the “uncanny valley,” which is a term often associated with video game or CGI characters looking creepy.

Also, the fact that children can’t really make out what the face of a clown looks like makes them subconsciously more suspicious of the person trying to entertain them. It’s almost enough to make you think that Joseph Grimaldi’s extreme makeup was a bad idea, or at least not suitable for performances that were not on stage.

7. Pop Culture Has Made Their Evil Cliche

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When most people think of an evil clown, their first mental image is probably going to be either Pennywise from Stephen King’s It or Batman’s nemesis The Joker. But fictional, murderous clowns didn’t need to wait until the twentieth century to enter the cultural consciousness. Back in 1892, Ruggero Leoncavallo popularized the premise of a clown that commits murder out of marital jealousy with his classic opera Pagliacci.

Considering that Pagliacci is Italian for clown instead of just being the name of that particular character, it’s more understandable that the opera would extend that stereotype to all clowns instead of just referring to a specific character’s homicidal tendencies.

6. Their Population is Aging

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With all the negative associations the public has with clowns, it’s not a particularly enticing career path for young people anymore. Consequently, not only is the population declining (in 2014 it was down to about 2,500 from 3,000 a few years earlier) but there are more and more that are going to have to age out of the profession. And people will stay in the profession until an older age than you might expect, although that may mean they have to approach the job in unusual ways.

For example, take the performer Wrinkles the Clown, who was 65 in 2015. His novel – and yet not really surprising –  approach to the profession was to scare Floridian kids by wearing an intentionally ghoulish mask and appearing by surprise in their homes as a punishment the parents apparently paid for. It’s understandable both why he withheld his real name, and why more and more clowns will probably have to transition to doing this if they don’t want to change careers.

5. Coulrophobia is Real and Pervasive

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Even if clowns were to collectively scale back the makeup, if the entertainment industry stopped including evil clowns in media from now on, and so on, for many people it wouldn’t address the fundamental problem. The irrational fear of clowns, better known as coulrophobia, is much more widespread than you might expect. Now, clowns are hardly as ubiquitous as heights, enclosed places, or spiders. Nevertheless, it’s become so common as far as phobias go that in Great Britain it sits at number three, just behind the fears of needles, and spiders. The most famous person known to suffer from the condition is Johnny Depp, though evidently he suffers from a fairly mild case, as he hasn’t said they give him difficulty breathing or panic attacks.

On the bright side for people with this condition, it is treatable. Through therapy, particularly exposure therapy, it is possible to overcome the panic attacks the sight of clowns induces. Still, given the dwindling number of them and the fact even companies like McDonald’s have pulled them from their branding, in the near future it might not be worth it to justify the effort and expense that goes into their treatment.

4. Middletown Clown

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It doesn’t seem like something that would attract the eyes of a nation multiple times, but this small advertisement is the logo equivalent of a camp classic. In 1956, Joseph Azzolina had this thirty-foot tall clown painting erected to advertise his grocery store in Middletown, New Jersey. Somewhere in the design phase a mistake was made to give the clown a disapproving expression, so he ended up looking more sinister than endearing. On top of that, it’s either holding something in its hand or extending an index finger with a red tip, which was fuel for even more snarky comments. Also, it used to rotate, meaning that kids in passing cars could very likely have the clown slowly be revealed, making its appearance all the more menacing.

Yet it has outlived the store it was supposed to advertise because locals seemed to fall in love with it. It’s been featured on both The Tonight Show and in multiple productions by Kevin Smith. Which just goes to show that we get a kick out of the idea of clowns being figures of fright. While it at least means that people will be more likely to give ironic work to clowns, the idea of them being scary being a popular joke probably means people with coulrophobia will more likely be too embarrassed to get help for it.

3. Pogo the Clown

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In the 1970s, John Wayne Gacy gained political ambitions in Illinois. It might have seemed far-fetched, considering he was a paroled convicted rapist, whose wife had divorced him and taken the children away. Gacy’s solution was to try to appeal to the locals through doing community service, and seem cute and approachable by being a clown at children’s’ parties under the name Pogo. He even went so far as to tell police that he thought clowns would be allowed to get away with anything.

There may have been some validity to that because even though he was a convicted felon, visitors to his home noticed that there was a foul smell around it but believed Gacy when he said it was just from mold. It wasn’t until 1978, six years after his first confessed murder, that his house was searched and some of his thirty-three murder/rape victims were found.

Photos of Gacy in clown makeup quickly became a focal point of this “killer clown” case. Gacy seemed to actively encourage associating clowns with sexual violence and murder by saying that he sometimes wore his clown attire while committing crimes. He also drew a number of pictures of clowns while in prison. No wonder that he was as damaging for the reputation of clowns as Patrick Sherrill was for postal employees.

2. Scary Clown Pranks

At the time of writing, there have been a wave of news reports that people have seen people in grotesque clown attire stalking through isolated areas intending to be seen and scare some people, sometimes carrying knives. So far in 2016 twelve arrests have been made as part of this wave. It turns out reports of this provocative behavior date back to the 1980s. Actually, 1981 to be precise, five years before the publication of Stephen King’s It.

Some of these incidents involves clowns trying to pick up children with vans. One in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1991 was attributed by the police with inspiring a man to rob a bank wearing a clown costume. Even kids themselves have gotten in on the act, such as four South Carolina teens arrested in 1992 for terrorizing children. More recently, and vastly more uncomfortably, a student in Corpus Christi, Texas tried to get other students to dress as clowns and commit acts of violence.

1. Enduring Clown Danger

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Many people have dismissed all these reports of unnerving clowns as either an elaborate hoax or a harmless situation. While it’s debatable whether it has any place in the news cycle, the fact of the matter is that this wave of odd behavior has brought with it real, physical harm for multiple people. For example, in Summitville, Tennessee, one teen in September 2016 was just walking down the street when he was assaulted by a man wearing a clown mask, who stabbed him in the hand. That same month, a man in a clown mask stabbed a sixteen year-old in Reading, Pennsylvania.

In that instance, the stabbing was fatal. The investigation hasn’t revealed an indication that these clown mask crimes were committed by someone that worked as a professional clown. Nevertheless, it certainly brings more negative associations to clowns and makes sure it’ll be even longer before clowns can hope of having a positive reputation again.

Dustin Koski didn’t include a clown in his fantasy novel, but that wasn’t because he’s afraid of them. Nope, not at all.


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