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What is Coulrophobia?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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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.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon985128 — On Jan 13, 2015

I have a severe phobia of clowns and I always since I was a young girl I was abused and that person wore a clown mask, so I forever will be scared of clowns. I can't even look at kids with clown face paint.

By LostGem — On Oct 06, 2013

I am 52 and I am a victim of Automatonophobia which is an umbrella of fears such as the fear of clowns, dolls, puppets, wax figures, ventriloquist dummies, mannequins, etc. -- anything that falsely represents a live human being.

I have a vision or a flashback of myself as a toddler wearing nothing but a diaper and a person dressed as a clown is holding my hand and pulling me. I don't want to go with him. I have a look of dread and fear on my face and I keep looking behind me for someone to rescue me from this clown.

I know that I was not physically holding the hand of a clown. I believe that my fear of clowns is a metaphor for a "mask" because I was betrayed by so many people in my family whom I should have felt safe and protected with. Instead, my family were monsters and I believe that "clown" represented my father. The real him, the monster hid behind the painted fake smile. I was severely abused by many family members.

Interestingly, I was the oldest of five siblings and we were all eventually removed from our parents and went our separate ways into different homes. I was reunited with my siblings as an adult and we all have a fear of clowns. We all grew up in entirely different environments; some were adopted and some shifted around to different foster homes (me) but we all have a fear of clowns. This is another reason why I believe it is a representation of betrayal.

I always hated dolls and dummies, etc. They always scared me. I believe the media had a lot to do with that as well as being a victim of abuse. There were so many movies where these figures represented evil -- they came to life and performed heinous crimes.

I can go to a circus and I can be around party clowns but I am very uncomfortable around them. When I think of clowns, I shudder. I don't even like Ronald McDonald.

By anon337073 — On Jun 02, 2013

To the guy who said that anyone could really have a fear of clowns, I had it between 4 old years old to some years after.

At age four, I didn't want to be unique or cute.

Man, that period of my life was horrible. My uncle said to me, "Hey, come here and let's see a movie." When I watched the movie, I saw a clown talking to a kid in the sewers and suddenly the clown opened his mouth and ate the kid. Yes, it was "IT." After that, I ran of that room and was traumatized for a long time. I had a lot of nightmares with clowns coming to my house to catch me, or chasing me with a knife. And not only nightmares, but when a clown appears, I just get really scared. It took me some years to overcome that trauma. But I haven't seen a person in clown costume since I overcame the trauma. I wonder what I would feel.

By anon336957 — On Jun 01, 2013

I'm 52 and I was never afraid of clowns, I just never found them funny (I did like The Town Clown on Captain Kangaroo though). I was terrified of the Philadelphia Mummers though. They used to appear in local parades in elaborate costumes with clown makeup. They seem to have varied it up in recent years.

By anon322402 — On Feb 27, 2013

Most people who "fear" clowns are faking. They are not even scary. The only time I can think I will have a fear of clowns is if I am walking outside around 2:00 A.M., and I see a clown walking my way. If it were a regularly dressed man I would also be scared, but one dressed as a clown will scare me even more, because I would wonder why he is trying to disguise himself in the streets at night, when there is nobody to entertain.

If I go to a Mcdonald's, Ronald would not scare me. I would enjoy it because clowns are usually happy people. Some people may have an actual fear of clowns, but most who claim they do actually don't. A lot of them want to appear unique because they think it is cute to be scared of something that shouldn't be scary. I can understand fear of spiders: eight legs, eight eyes, sharp fangs, venom. However, I have the opposite. I love them. I have a pet tarantula named Harry. She is beautiful and I care for her as if she were a human being. However, roaches scare me. They have prickly, long legs, and they are huge and disgusting.(I live in South Texas) But I am not going to go around telling everyone I know that I am scared of them. They are something to be afraid of, not damn happy clowns.

A lot of people claim to be afraid of them because of an experience, such as watching "IT." Well my dad got punched in the head by (I think) the singer for the Butthole Surfers. The guy thought my dad threw a bottle at him. It wasn't him of course, but anyway he got punched in the head, and couldn't do anything about it without being arrested. Traumatic? I think so. Does he still listen to the Butthole Surfers. Yes. He does not go around pretending to be afraid of them, because he will look like an idiot, just like all the fake clown fearers.

I might add that I got bitten by a spider when I was around four, and I have the mark to remind me. I am not scared of them, just because of one bad experience.

So all the people who "fear" clowns,(the fakers, not the small percentage of people with the actual phobia) please don't stop pretending. It is very entertaining for us who know they are faking.

By anon275752 — On Jun 20, 2012

I am also afraid of clowns, because I watched the movie "IT" when I was really young and I have been uneasy around them for a while until about last year when I started freaking out about like everything that had to do with clowns. They still freak me out very badly and I can't do anything about it.

By anon266471 — On May 06, 2012

I'm 15 and I was a bit uneasy around clowns until I saw “IT,” and I was terrified. To this day, I can't look at Ronald McDonald and one day my friend thought it would be funny to stand behind me wearing a clown mask and when I turned around, I automatically punched her in the face. I broke the mask and nearly broke her nose. And when I watched zombieland at a birthday party, I burst into tears when Columbus was in the toilet and the clown comes under the door.

By anon194720 — On Jul 09, 2011

I'm so afraid of clowns, so I will never go in the circus again!

By anon170377 — On Apr 26, 2011

well i used to be afraid of clowns until i met my boyfriend who was down with ICP (insane clown posse) and i became a juggalette which involved painting my face like a clown. after that i wasn't scared anymore, but my mom is scared of clowns and always has been. i wonder why?

By anon161981 — On Mar 22, 2011

I have been scared of clowns ever since I was six. I'll never forget it, ever. My mom took me to the circus and I got separated from her and I ran into a clown. He had the full costume and face paint on, and was carrying a baseball bat, probably as part of his act. He gave me this horrible grin and then said in this awful voice, "Are you lost, little girl?" Then he reached out with the hand that wasn't holding the baseball bat, and I just started screaming and screaming so bad the people around thought he tried to molest me.

Now that I look back on it I don't think he was trying to scare me at all, but because he was wearing face-paint I couldn't tell his expression. Since then, whenever I see a picture or figurine of a clown -- especially if they're smiling -- I feel sick and dizzy and start sweating heavily.

One day in elementary school the teacher brought in a clown for someone's birthday and I had a full-blown panic attack and passed out. I've been told that ever since that incident they always check to see if any kids have coulrophobia before bringing in a clown.

By anon160040 — On Mar 14, 2011

I'm 17 and I'm still afraid of clowns ever since i seen the movie "IT."

By anon152648 — On Feb 14, 2011

I'm 46 years old and still have a fear of clowns in any form. My earliest memory is of a clown at a circus and me being terrified of him. I'm a successful attorney now, but would never take a case involving clowns in any form. Amazing how our childish fear haunt us the rest of our lives.

By anon144092 — On Jan 18, 2011

*Shudders.* I have a horrible fear of clowns, but unfortunately for me, I am paranoid over a few things like clowns. I have no idea what to call it, but I’m a 12 year old girl who cannot go into a dark room by myself, even if someone else in there, like sleeping. It’s horrible!

I think it’s because I watched “Psycho” when I was about 8, and I couldn’t take a shower by myself. I forced my mother to stand in the bathroom until I finished showering. Now 12, during the first part of 2010 when I started middle school, I could not dry my hair in my bathroom, because I thought IT or Michael Myers was hiding in the bathroom closet. I got over my Psycho terror a year ago, but now I think that Chucky is coming to slit my throat in my sleep. I’ve gotten over a lot of things, but I can’t get over Chucky, Michael Myers, Chucky again, and a few others. Sometimes, it’s just something that got in my head and I can’t get out!

I remember some stupid forwarding messages I got and I didn’t want to go in the shower even if another person was in there. Some girl got broken up with, and she killed herself and like every forwarding message, she threatened to kill you by coming up the shower drain and slitting your throat or something like that. Three simple words: I. Was. Terrified. I am paranoid of the most stupid things. Please help.

And if you can’t, thank you for allowing me to express my stupid horror. I hate escalators as well. Haha. Had to say that.

Oh, by the way, I can go into haunted houses easily! As long as I have my dad’s coat to bury my head into when I go past the Psycho part, the Chucky part, and any part with dolls. I’m referring to Universal Studios Horror exhibit, yes.

Like I said, I’ve gotten over a lot. I can do some dolls now. I still hate clowns. I will probably never get over IT, Michael Myers, or Chucky. Especially Chucky. I got over my short-time Bloody Mary terror, but I still get shaky when I think too much about Lizzie Borden. Sometimes it’s my own fault, though. I’m the idiot who reads the articles. Well, thanks again. --Avery

By anon105696 — On Aug 22, 2010

I have had coulrophobia since I was like four years old and I woke up in the middle of the night, wanting to go to the toilet.

While I was going there, I noticed the TV was on and I stopped for a bit to see what was on TV. It was some movie where a clown was killing some kids with a huge evil smile on his face. After that, every single time I was alone until I was like nine, I was terrified of being killed by the clown.

Even when i was in the toilet I was practically trembling and i would randomly start to cry whenever I was alone for a long period of time.

The lesson - don't leave your TV on if you don't want to traumatize your kid.

By anon104477 — On Aug 16, 2010

I only remember one encounter at the circus and the clowns were funny and I loved it. They were trying to build something i guess and kept hitting each other with wooden boards. it was comical. I didn't remember about that until recently.

I've always had a fear of clowns, just weird, and then my mom says I saw "IT" at the age of five. I'm not afraid of clowns -- I'm afraid of it "IT" Pennywise the dancing clown.

I never read the book but i saw the movie four days ago and now i can't look at the color red without seeing him. I've realized clowns are fine, it's the scary ones or the ones that jump out at you (maze game except no exorcist -- just a clown) or even people that jump out in clown masks or suits.

I also found out, no thanks to stephen king's movie, why I don't like popping balloons, spiders or bugs. He is very talented, though, to be able to do that. P.S. I'm 25 now.

By anon98803 — On Jul 24, 2010

i am 13 and i have always been afraid of clowns since i was 5, when i watched the "IT" movie and have been scared of them ever since. If i see a clown doll mask or a picture of one, i will freak out and start hyperventilating and crying and it doesn't help that some of my friends will jokingly mess with me about them. it's not very fun. --meagan176

By anon98140 — On Jul 22, 2010

I remember being taken to a circus when I was about three and screaming and crying every time there was a clown act. My mother just didn't *get* it until she mentioned my "unexplained tantrums" decades later and I told her the clowns were freaking me out. Way to be the attentive parent, Mom.

I think they freaked me out because they were really beating on each other (pies and mallets)and they seemed very jovial during their violence. I told my fiance that I tend to associate clowns with public humiliation. The thought of encountering one will actually make me violently angry, where I want to hit -- "fight or flight", I guess.

My friend's mom has pictures and figurines or clowns everywhere, so I've been somewhat desensitized from inanimate clown likenesses, but an actual clown will still agitate the hell out of me. I'll actually get teary-eyed if I think too hard about it.

By anon94102 — On Jul 07, 2010

i am 15, with a completely irrational fear of clowns, for no reason whatsoever.

i remember being younger and running away crying when a clown offered me a balloon (i also have a fear of balloons).

it's now at the stage where seeing a clown will cause a panic attack and end in me crying my eyes out, like in science last year. For some reason or another the teacher had a picture of a clown on the presentation he was showing and i had to cover my face because i was crying and all my friends were yelling 'turn it off!'

By anon91200 — On Jun 20, 2010

Oh, c'mon. Clowns are supposed to be funny. Laugh at them and the will run away. Personally, I'd wear one of my face your fears of clowns t-shirts.

By anon84415 — On May 15, 2010

I am age 18 and have been afraid of clowns for as long as i can remember and it brings big problems because if i am at the store or i pass by an advertisement for the circus, i freeze up and my breath gets really fast.

By anon83683 — On May 12, 2010

you know what's worst than all the aforementioned by you guys? being five and that your parents, not knowing your fear of clowns, decide to dress you up as one! Oh Gods, and then they made me look at myself in the mirror ("see how pretty you look honey?")

Anyway, I've had this fear since i can remember and i just can't control it. the horrible part is that when i feel threatened by something or someone my first reaction is to get really angry and sometimes even violent. One time there was a two year old kid dressed up as a clown in front of me and i had to literally hold myself in place in order to not hit the poor kid.

i started crying from the anger and by the time the mother and the kid left my nails were inside my skin from the pressure -- not a funny thing to watch.

By anon73816 — On Mar 29, 2010

I haven't seen the film IT and i don't want to. just get all the clowns together and put them on a island and leave them forever.

By anon73810 — On Mar 29, 2010

i have never seen the movie "IT" and i don't want to. when i was little i had a clown painted on my door but the door was hidden by a wall but that was all right but then when i was about five, i went to a party and there was a clown there and i had to leave the room. i am 14 now and i am still petrified of clowns!

By anon69451 — On Mar 08, 2010

I have never liked clowns but i do understand why so many people are afraid of them.

By anon69446 — On Mar 08, 2010

I have this phobia probably since i was five when a clown picked me up and said how ya doing and put me where i could not see my parents.

By anon68816 — On Mar 04, 2010

Wow, I never was afraid of clowns -- or so I thought, until now. After reading that, I am starting to think I have Coulrophobia.

By anon64872 — On Feb 09, 2010

I am a 26 year old female whom has been terrified of clowns since the age of three. My aunt took me to the circus, a clown came and picked me up from my seat to ride the elephant.

Being three and having none of this explained to me, I freaked. To this day, I can't be around them. I'm well educated and have this ridiculous debilitating fear.

By anon64332 — On Feb 06, 2010

I am 21 and was extremely scared of clowns from the age of 4 - 15 or but now they still creep me out.

we went to the circus when i was young, about 11 or so, and i kept my back turned when the clowns came on and had a vision in my head that one of them will pop out in front and scare me.

the line in the movie - clownhouse when one of the main persons says something like - big smiley faces, big eyes and all that is not real, you never know who they really are and i agree with that.

By anon58057 — On Dec 29, 2009

Clowns are awesome. I love them. It's funny because I used to be afraid of them until I got into I.C.P. And Stephen King is the master of horror. How awesome are you if your stories cause phobias?

By anon56893 — On Dec 18, 2009

I've never had a fear of clowns. In fact, in a sense, I find them rather fascinating. I love how seemingly innocent things can be turned into something so vile and twisted. You know, kind of like dolls. You know they can't do anything to you. But it's still cool to imagine what they'd be like if they were alive.

By anon54014 — On Nov 26, 2009

I'm a 24 year old guy. i go dizzy, feel sick and could pass out at the sight of clowns, porcelain dolls, mimes, live statues, ventriloquist dolls or anything else like these.

Apparently when i was a toddler i was taken to the circus and screamed the place down when a clown came on the stage. I agree with the person who was talking about child molesters. It does beg the question: why do grown men wear ridiculous wigs and clothing, apply make up and go to children's parties?

By anon54003 — On Nov 26, 2009

They scare the crap out of me. Always have and always will. Don't know what triggered it but the older I get the worse it becomes. And I'm 46. I can only say I hate two things. And I don't like to use the word hate. First, the dentist, and second, clowns.

By anon49993 — On Oct 25, 2009

I'm terrified of clowns. Whenever I see one, I get shaky, dizzy, cry, and black out.

I'm 14, and I hate Halloween, because of the clowns.

My teacher brought in a clown mask, and I peed myself, and blacked out for 20 minutes.

He almost got fired for doing it, because it says right on my register form, "Any phobias? Coulrophobia."

And so he got suspended from teaching for a week.

People think i'm strange because of the reason why i'm scared of them.

1.) The movie "It"

2.) Clowns go to little kids' birthday parties, and child molesters like little children. And the clowns will go to a birthday party to pick one certain kid out, and rape them.

Yes I know, kind of funny.

But the thought of it is making my eyes water.

Ehh, I've got to stop talking about it.

By anon49780 — On Oct 22, 2009

I'm 13 and I have been scared of clowns since i was 5 because i saw the "IT" movie and saw him kill the little girls and boys.

That's why i'm afraid of them and i want to get over my fear but i don't know how.

By anon44589 — On Sep 09, 2009

I have been afraid of clowns for most of my life. The movie "It" had something to do with it. My cousin made me sit and watch it. He said if i moved he would come get me. Then he turned off the lights and ran out of the room. I was so scared! I was eight then and I'm 23 now. I get all hot and shaky when a clown is around.

It didn't help that there was a little clown doll hanging over my bed as a kid!

By anon43793 — On Sep 01, 2009

I suffer from coulrophobia. The fear triggered when I was about three or four years old and a large board cut out and painted like a clown fell on me. I didn't particularly enjoy it.

By anon40248 — On Aug 07, 2009

I am 39, and have no specific memory of being scared or traumatized by a clown in my childhood. I have never really liked clowns, but I would say that the phobia level of my fears did not start until my early 20s. As the years have passed, my fears have not only increased dramatically towards clowns, but my fears have also expanded towards life like looking dolls, mimes, mannequins, puppets (but only the ones on strings), ventriloquist dolls, carnival workers (Carnies), Gypsy dressed up people. I really have no idea why I have these fears, but I can assure you that they are *very very* real fears.

By anon39042 — On Jul 29, 2009

Thanks for sharing your posts about clowns. My son is so irrational at the sight of one. He is 10 and it seems worse. I hurt for him, because i know it's true pain and anxiety

By anon37511 — On Jul 20, 2009

I love clowns so much. I don't see why people have a fear of them.

By anon36330 — On Jul 11, 2009

i have *always* been afraid of clowns. nothing triggered it though.

By dawniedots — On Dec 19, 2008

I too have a complete and irrational fear of clowns...as a child I hated being taken to the circus because of the clowns and later, as a teenager, the Chuckie films absolutely terrified me. There is something sinister and evil about them. Now I can't even look at nursery wallpaper with clowns on without feeling dizzy. I know it's irrational, but it is very real to me.

By sally2 — On May 14, 2008

As a small child in the 60's, for a short time I had bad dreams of the plaster cast store dummies following me. This seems similar. Thanks for the information.

By sevenseas — On Mar 22, 2008

The only person that I have heard of, that supposedly has coulrophobia is Johnny Depp.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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