Clowns are creepy. Many children and more than a few adults think so. People are dressing up as scary clowns across the US and around the world and trying to tempt people into woods and chasing people with knives and machetes. For those that suffer from ‘Coulrophopia’ (fear of clowns) it’s a terrifying time to be alive. However, you’re not alone! In 2008 a study showed that most children dislike clowns and that dislike is shared by adults. So we thought we’d offer some solace and explain the science and psychology behind why people find clowns scary.:

Fear of the Unknown

We generally fear the unknown, and the gaudy makeup and costume of the clowns makes them appear strange to children. There are also elements of not being able to pick up on social cues. If we can’t see their expression, and their clothes and wig reject cultural norms, all the normal social clues are taken away from us. This makes us question their motivations. The general mischievousness of clowns is also deeply unsettling. They reject norms of behaviors and might decide to jump out at you. They’re unpredictable. This is a similar feeling you get if you sit in the front row at a stand-up comedy show. Most people dread the public humiliation of being singled out by the comedian. The same can be said for clowns – the difference is we can see the comedian. He/she is more predictable and their motivations are more clear. Naturally the sense of unease is exacerbated when it comes to clowns.

We are all coded trained deep in our DNA to recognize faces from a very early age. Studies have shown that newborns eyesight is limited to 12 inches. When we’re just a few months old we can recognize the difference between a happy and a sad face. What we expect to see in a face is hard-wired into us so a smile painted on to a face is unnerving. This only gets worse when the painted expression doesn’t match the real expression. It’s like someone smiling when they’re angry. That’s why many horror movie clowns still have leering smiles daubed on their faces.

This can be seen with the Thatcher Effect illusion. This was named after British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher whose picture was most famously used to demonstrate the phenomenon. This illusion is triggered by turning the eyes and mouth in a picture upside down in a photograph. When you look at the photograph the effect is disturbing, but interestingly, if the picture is upside down, people don’t notice the difference. This is because our brains are trained to make sense of facial images. It’s a pretty creepy phenomenon, as you can see from the photo that Peter Thompson used in his original experiment:

Thatcher Illusion - Why Clowns are Scary

Cultural Influence

Another factor for why clowns are scary is cultural. ‘Cultural cognition’ is a theory that a society forms a general association caused by a particular factor. Essentially, people are scared of clowns because there are so many horror movies of scary clowns in the media. Clowns only became widespread in horror films in the 1980s, though the modern image is relatively unchanged in 150 years or so.  So what has changed? This change of perception was kick started by the serial killer John Wayne Gacy – AKA ‘the Killer Clown’. Gacy gained the moniker for a character he created called ‘Pogo the Clown’ and entertain at children’s parties. Gacy killed 33 teenage boys and young men, making him one of the most prolific serial killers in American history. He was sentenced and jailed in 1980 and was executed in 1994. This story was so familiar that it contributed to people fearing clowns in the United States. Hollywood capitalized on this unease with horror movies, like Steven King’s ‘It’ and others.

Why are Clowns Appearing?

This is not the first time this has happened. In the early 1980s there was a similar spate of clown sighting in the Boston area. People at the time thought that this was mass hysteria triggered by sightings only by children. This recent global outbreak is probably a result of copycat actors. There is a lot of video footage and pictures of the clowns out there on social media. It’s essentially a creepy trend, like a horrible version of the ice bucket challenge. It will pass and be forgotten until the next time people decide to dress up en masse to freak people out. So Here is our advice. if you see a clown – don’t be scared – but probably stay away from it all the same!

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