Coulrophobia: When Clowns Aren’t Funny

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Coulrophobia: When Clowns Aren’t Funny

A clown looking at the camera at a sinister mode. / Photo by: Sergey Mironov via 123RF


In the 1800s, there was a comedian who donned white paint on his face and red spots on his cheeks to emphasize his facial features as he performed his antics in the halls of Georgia, says The Daily Telegraph.

However, off the stage, he had a quite tragic life which he could not laugh about. His wife died upon giving birth and his alcoholic son died at 30 years old.

This comedian who brought smiles to the British audience despite his tragedy was Joey Grimaldi, the first clown in history.

Clowns were once simply perceived as a source of joy and entertainment, the conveyor of jokes and a staple at parties.

Yet now, they are also viewed as a source of horror, an entity which a person must run from if they want to save their dear life.

Currently, there is an increasing number of people who acknowledge that the mere image of a clown makes them cower in sheer terror.

As proof, the Thought Catalog says that a 2016 research conducted with participants 18 to 77 had shown that they had voted clown as the creepiest profession.

To add to this, according to, in a survey done by Vox poll, 42% of  the 1,999 Americans they surveyed confessed that they were afraid of clowns more than climate change and terrorism.

Despite this very real fear, the World Health Organization refuses to recognize it as an official phobia.

What has made this roundabout impression of clowns and why are people so terrified of them?


Brief History of Horrifying Clowns

In order to understand why more people are being more fearful at the sight of clowns, we must first go back in time to their origins as told by Telegraph.

In days past, during the medieval times, they were, as they still occasionally do, used to entertain the crowds in their brightly-patterned outfits.

Nevertheless, in the 16th century, they soon became haunting reminders of impending doom.

They were then associated with dreadful truths and death because they mock people about their mortality, their animalistic nature and how ridiculous humans could be.

After the advent of Grimaldi, in 1836, came the first murderous clown.Gaspard Debaru was a man who worked as the clown Pierrot. Debaru killed a boy with his walking stick. He was said to have murdered the kid because for taunting him in public.

However, that was only the beginning of the clown terror.

Around 1972 to 1978, another man dressed in a clown suit had fashioned the very definition of a serial killer clown. His name was John Gacy. In those 16 years, working part-time as Pogo the clown in Chicago, he had raped and killed about 33 women.

Fortunately, he was executed in 1994 when he was found guilty for those crimes.

Then, in the 1980s, clowns appeared where they were least expected, Thought Catalog narrates. They started showing up in places like urban alleyways and graveyard in the middle of the night.

In 2013, there were also many reported unnerving sightings of clowns.

However, the clown horror only truly began to heighten at the appearance of the Northampton Clown in October 2016 when the actual creepy clown craze started.

After that, together with the featuring of these killer clowns in the movies (such as Stephen Spielberg’s It and the film Batman), people have never seen clowns in the same way again.

Although it might be more appropriate to say that people have recently realized the darkness that had always been hiding underneath the mask of their feigned happiness.


What is Coulrophobia?

After discussing the history of how twisted the image of clowns became, we now proceed to the term itself, coulrophobia.

Coulrophobia, according to Thought Catalog is the irrational fear of clowns. It was said to have come from a Greek word with the meaning “fear of the man on stilts”.

It is also known by the terms “clownophobia” and “bozophobia.”



Next, after discussing the meaning of coulrophobia, it is time to explore what causes people to have it.


1. Uncanny Valley

In an interview done by Vulture with Steven Schlozman, a psychiatrist of Harvard Medical School and a teacher of the psychology of horror, he elaborates what makes people so scared of clowns.

Schlozman introduces the concept of the uncanny, which was an aspect of horror coined by Freud.

Uncanny is the feeling you get when you see something but feel like there is something that is wrong with it, but you could not really point out what it is.

He then gives the example of a human face that is rotting.

Additionally, he says that besides the idea of uncanny being applied to horror tropes in clowns, there is also a historical side to it.

Schlozman expounds that in medieval times when jesters were unable to make the kings laugh, they were punished by having their mouth mutilated so it would appear that they were always smiling.

For further explanation, Thought Catalog divulges, “They seem human, but they have that smile painted on their faces forever whether they’re happy or not. And their clothes and hair are usually exaggerated and cartoonish. So you’re dealing with a human that looks like a cartoon.”

They also add, “In many people, this triggers a deeps sense of revulsion.”


2. Fear of the unknown

Psychologia states that another cause for this is being unable to identify the true identity of the person beneath the clown costume.

They clarified that this not being able to know makes a person panic.

When a person disguises themselves as a clown, because of the other parts of their costume such their overly done makeup, colorful clothes and their wacky wigs, one could not determine whether they are a woman or a man, if they are thin or fat or whether they are truly beaming underneath.



A shocked woman. / Photo by: Ion Chiosea via 123RF


According to Telegraph, a person with coulrophobia, when coming in contact with a clown may experience the following:

- Overwhelming fear

- Feeling nauseous

- Sweating

- Irregular heartbeat

- Panic

- Having a hard time breathing



Telegraph states that in order to cure a person’s fear of clowns, they can seek professional help by going through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. (CBT)


To close, ultimately, clowns are the embodiment of the saying “nothing is ever as it seems.” The fear that these coulrophobic people have may not be so irrational after all since history has proven that they literally have a dark sense of humor.



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