If you wake up from nightmares that have you running from a Bozo look-alike wielding a knife, or if you feel a little ill at the mention of Marcel Marceau, then you may be suffering from coulrophobia, the fear of clowns and mimes. Coulrophobia is a relatively new term first used in the 1990s. It has origins in the Greek language, where koulon means limb. This relates to the Greek term for those who used stilts, i.e., clowns and circus performers. People afraid of clowns are called coulrophobes.
The Internet has spawned hundreds of sites dedicated to the topic of coulrophobia. Many attribute evil intent to clowns due to the numerous media portrayal of clowns as evil. They also reference serial killer, John Gacy, who enjoyed dressing as a clown to entertain children at neighborhood parties. However, the Joker, the famous Batman villain, could technically be called the first modern evil clown.
Most agree, however, that the main reasons for coulrophobia are the make-up and exaggerated features of the clown. Painted eyes and painted smiles, as well as the red bulbous nose, can be frightening initially to children. In fact some children share a similar fear of Santa Claus as well.
A clown act may also feature clowns being hurt, or clowns hurting other clowns. Most comedy has its origins in personal pain, and slapstick comedy particularly emphasizes physical pain. The fact that someone causes physical pain with a huge painted smile suggests that one cannot trust the painted expressions of the clown.
True coulrophobia usually dates from an initial childhood incident with a clown that provokes intense fear. Many also consider coulrophobia to be a basic dislike or distrust of the painted face of the clown, which obscures true facial expressions.
Coulrophobia in the latter definition is certainly exploited by the media. Consider the 1980s film Poltergeist, where an evil clown attacks a child. Many list this as one of the top 100 scariest movie scenes ever. Pennywise the clown, in Stephen King’s book, and teleplay It has also provoked a number of chills. Films with names like Killer Clowns from Outer Space scarcely require explanation.
Characters afraid of clowns are also frequent in television and film. Xander, from the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer reveals his fear of clowns in the first season. Monk from the popular series of the same name also is afraid of clowns. Even little Chuckie from the children’s series Rugrats exhibits coulrophobia.
In a more general sense, the concept of obscured facial features appears to be most concerning and may in part account for coulrophobia. The multiple films that feature serial killers with masked or disfigured faces can scarcely be counted. The big three, of course are Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers, from Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Halloween, respectively. The tradition continues in horror films like Scream and Saw.
Despite coulrophobia, a few children’s shows have featured kinder, gentler clowns that do not seem to provoke an inordinate amount of fear. The PBS Big Comfy Couch featured a clown family. The clown did have the red nose, but makeup did not entirely obscure the face, thus perhaps provoking less coulrophobia.
Still, it is unlikely that coulrophobia will cease to exist, since most seem to have an innate distrust in being unable to read the expressions of the typical clown face. Naturally, media portrayal of clowns continues to enhance coulrophobia, by literally turning clowns into our worst nightmares.