The clown is a staple for Halloween costumes, horror films and children’s nightmares. The figure of the evil clown has inspired countless characters: Pennywise from "It," The Joker from "Batman," Sideshow Bob, wrestler Doink the Clown, Shawn Crahan from Slipknot, and Twisty from "American Horror Story," to name a few. In fact, when was the last time you even saw a "happy clown" on TV?
Even before the Freddie Kruger's and Beetlejuice's of our time, there's a rich history of clowns hiding a dark soul behind their painted-on grins. In an attempt to explain this strange overlap between the funny and the freaky, there’s a lot of psychology and anthropology about clowns and why they make some people feel pleasure while others experience less enjoyable emotions – mainly uneasiness, panic, or petrified terror.
Of course, there are different levels of being creeped out by clowns. There’s the “weirdly creepy, wouldn’t want to find that peeking through my door at night” fear, right through to the anxiety disorder coulrophobia.
Phobias are a very separate type of fear. In 1920, psychologists John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner developed an experiment where they conditioned phobias into an emotionally stable child. The experiment is absurdly unethical by today’s standards, however it highlighted an important link between phobias and conditioning.
In classical conditioning, the brain will begin to associate two separate stimuli if they repeatedly coincide. The brain can “learn” to associate a neutral stimulus (like a clown for example) with a negative stimulus (like some form of pain or discomfort) if they are often experienced simultaneously. After this pattern has been ingrained, the neutral stimulus alone can invoke feelings of fear.
This is why people with phobias might appear to have an “irrational fear,” because the neutral stimulus appears totally unrelated to any negative stimulus. A lot of phobias are created in memories from our early childhood, so it's perhaps no surprise the clown features so prominently in lists of the most common phobias.
“Kids around two or so are very reactive to a familiar body type with an unfamiliar face,” according to Dr. Ronald Doctor, professor of psychology at California State University. Combining a period of your life where you’re susceptible to initiating phobias, sensitive to weird faces and around a lot of clowns does indeed sound like a recipe for disaster.
But is it always a conditioned response or is there something about them our minds find intrinsically ominous?
Some fears, such as the fear of spiders, have been explained as an innate evolutionary throwback to avoid the dangers of threatening animals. According to some psychologists and anthropologists, the figure of the clown also triggers some of our universal responses to social stimulus.
Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote extensively about masks in his study of tribal cultures. A recurring theme was the “freedom” that masks granted the wearer. In his 1982 book, "The Way of the Masks," he wrote: "The facial disguise temporarily eliminates [the face] from social intercourse… The face is the organ by which self and society carry on the largest portion of the communication in which they engage.” In other words, there's an impression that someone with their face obscured or covered can act without restraint from social convention and doesn’t suffer any consequences for their actions.
Sigmund Freud pondered over an idea called the “uncanny valley” effect. It is the idea of something being very familiar but simultaneously oddly unfamiliar that causes a response of revulsion. While we are attracted by the familiar features, we are repulsed by the unfamiliar, causing a contradictory and unsettling feeling of cognitive dissonance. As a prime example, think of those super-creepy and super-realistic robots.
Speaking to Vulture, Steven Schlozman, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, said that a creepy, never-changing grin has this property: “You recognize a smile, your brain registers that smiles are largely good things – and yet you can’t smile all the time, because if you’re smiling all the time, something’s not right... I think that’s similar to clowns, in that we take cues from the way people behave, but if there’s no change in the way they look or the way they act that makes them very scary.”
In true Freud style, he believed our reaction to the uncanny was because our "super-ego" makes us feel that deviating from societal norms will lead to a symbolic castration. Although psychologists nowadays come to the more neutral consensus that “uncanny valley” is a mechanism to stop us from mating with “biologically costly” partners, by being able to recognize subtle signs of infertility or ill health.
The fear of clowns is by no means innate. We live in a time when mass media permeates our every pore, so there’s no doubt film and television’s association of the clown with horror has seeped into our culture’s collective conscious. However, there is something that seems to tickle a strange neural network we all have locked away in our brains.
So if you truly want to terrify someone this Halloween, forget the sexy vampire costume and go for the Freudian pit of childhood nightmares: the clown.
Cover image credit: Tom Simpson/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)