The ‘IT’ Crowd: Why Do We Fear Clowns? A Psychologist Answers
As of the time of this writing, ‘It’ is coming. ‘It’ being the most recent film adaptation of Stephen King‘s horror opus, set to release in theaters on September 8th. The first adaptation of It was unleashed on viewers 27 years ago as a 2-part television mini-series. ‘It’ made an indelible impression on many young viewers who covertly viewed the made-for-TV-movie in their dark bedrooms or bafflingly watched alongside their permissive parents, despite warnings about the graphic content (Thanks for the complex!) On the other hand some diehard fans of the novel were quick to criticize the copious cuts that were made to ensure the hefty tome (1,138 pages) fit into two episodes with a combined runtime of just 3 hours 15 minutes.
Pennywise: What Nightmares are Made of
Despite severely slashing contents of the book, one can’t deny the creepiness of the makeup provided for Pennywise the Clown. With his wild tuft of ragged, blood-red hair, menacing bloodshot eyes, and predator-like pointy teeth, Pennywise was the stuff of nightmares.
This carnivorous clown is the primary form that the titular ‘It,’ an ancient embodiment of evil, prefers to take and is played aptly by a sometimes gruesome, sometimes playful Tim Curry. Keep in mind, though, that budgets for television shows were not as robust as they are currently and some of the effects just simply fall flat. I’m looking in your general direction, Giant Spider Thingee:
Sure it looked pretty cool, but its movement was laughably slow and overly stiff. Some of those who originally felt at least marginally disturbed by the TV series discovered that subsequent viewings later in life didn’t necessarily hold up. For some, it may come off as a bit tedious and rather cheesy, at least in parts. Let’s hope that Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise from the new film delivers some fresh scares.
Ok, back to the clown. Although ‘It’ is not just about an evil murderous clown, that’s a big part of the scare factor. And why is it that clowns tend to frighten some people?
The Psychology of Fearing Clowns
Coulrophobia, while not an officially diagnosable psychiatric disorder, has been pegged as the informal term to identify a pronounced fear of clowns. Keep in mind that actual phobias are marked by an persistent, excessive and unreasonable fear in response to a specific stimulus (e.g. an object like a spider or a situation like being on an airplane) that results in an anxious response (e.g. heart palpitations, shallow breathing, muscle tightening..etc..) along with persistent avoidance of the feared stimulus.
Coulrophobia, on the other hand, at least in my experience, seems to suggest more of an intense dislike or discomfort. I should know because I’m one of those people who “suffer” from it. I put “suffer” in quotes because it doesn’t adversely affect my day-to-day life in any significant way. I certainly don’t prefer clowns, but I’m not prone to experiencing any major lasting ill effects whenever I see one. Even though Coulrophobia is not listed in the diagnostic reference book of mental health practitioners (the DSM-V), perhaps further research should be conducted to ascertain its prevalence and the varying degrees people might suffer from it. Oh, those would be some deviously fun experiments to conduct (completely falling within ethical standards, of course)!
Phobias or, in this case, fairly strong negative associations can sometimes arise from early experiences. I can pretty much trace my own discomfort with clowns to watching the original Poltergeist (1982) as a kid. That Tobe Hooper (R.I.P.) and Steven Spielberg co-directed classic about restless spirits haunting a suburban family contains a scene in which a clown doll comes to life and attempts to strangle a terrified kid as it pulls him under his bed:
If you were a child of the 80’s and this scene did not frighten you, I salute your nerves of steel.
When I reflect on my own discomfort about clowns, what comes to mind is one of their defining features – the exaggerated expressions, often highlighted by white grease paint and various colorful make-up combinations. They are typically portrayed as almost maniacally happy which could potentially elicit curious thoughts like, “What’s underneath all that smiling? What sort of sinister agendas are you hiding?” Let’s face it, clowns are essentially inhuman. What I mean is that, while they’re humanoid in their overall appearance, they represent an exaggerated one-dimensional characterization of the human experience, typically a sort of goofy slapstick mania. You don’t have to be a psychologist to find yourself suspicious and uneasy about this sort of emotional one-trick pony.
Another off-putting facet of clowns is that they are primarily entertainers for children. As concerned parents, we may find ourselves to be rather scrutinizing of the kinds of people who make it their goal to be around a lot of children. This may be unfair to the vast majority of people who by and large have golden intentions and the patience of saints (e.g. many teachers, coaches..etc..), but all it takes is one or two news stories about a child predator grooming, abusing and/or abducting children to put that idea in your head, irrational and improbable though it may be.
A recent SNL skit starring Louis C.K. hilariously turned this concern on its head, however, as the salty comedian invited several child performers, including one unlucky clown, over to a birthday party which just happened to be his own:
Despite my reservations, in the end, I will not be avoiding the new ‘It’ movie. I’d like to think that this is the sum result of having had cable tv in my room as a pre-teen which, on the one hand, largely desensitized me to the kind of overstimulating late-night fare that included slasher flicks like Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street, yet on the other hand has likely contributed to the insomnia that I still have to this day. It surely doesn’t help matters when in recent times people have been reporting various clown sightings: Sleepless nights for the win!
So what are your thoughts about clowns? Feel free to leave comments below. Anyway, let’s not forget that the body’s response to fear is physiologically equivalent to excitement. So I will just have to find some way to rationalize to myself that I’m actually quite excited to be watching a murderous ancient evil clown demon prey on hapless children. Sure, ahh let’s go with that…