Next month, Rob Zombie’s crowdfunded horror film 31 will be released, featuring kidnapped carnival workers under attack by a troupe donning clown masks. Next year in IT, we’ll see Stephen King’s Pennywise come to life once again, this time by Bill Skarsgård. One of the most frequent questions I am asked as someone who studies fear is: why? Why do we continue to make the clown the ultimate American monster?
Well, here are just a few reasons:
First, historically the clown character has spent more time as a foe rather than a friend. Clowning entertainment (like court jesters) was built on violating the expected “appropriate” social behavior, e.g. portraying those who drank too much, were hyper-sexual, said awful things, and were in every way total assholes. Court jesters and clowns would often mock their audience with rude comments and behaviors that were far from socially acceptable, and they would even play spiteful pranks and tricks. It may have been entertaining, but certainly not always kid-friendly and far from innocent.
Second, there is the long and rapidly growing list of individuals in the clown game that have left the public with a less than joyful impression of the character. One of the most famous clowns of the 19th century, Joseph Grimaldi, was known to be quite miserable underneath his painted face, as was his son, who followed in his father’s clowning footsteps. Both men died as impoverished alcoholics, tarnishing what was supposed to be lighthearted fun.
Adding an even darker layer to clowning is Jean-Gaspard Deburau’s Pierrot, who (supposedly) murdered a boy with a walking stick in 1836. However, no one can compare to the horrors brought forth in the late 20th century by serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Gacy, who spent his free time clowning for local children’s parties, also happened to kidnap, torture, and murder young men in his home before burring them in his basement. Gacy achieved infamous status in the late ’70s as the “Killer Clown,” a scary character further reinforced in the public’s mind when Stephen King’s IT was published in 1986. Even fast food mascot Ronald McDonald could not scrub the tarnish from the image of the clown.
So, historically there is already precedence, and an archetype, for the clown as something other than a source of joy. This, however, doesn’t explain why even those who have never encountered Gacy or Pennywise (or the amazing Killer Klowns from Outer Space) have a pathological fear of clowns. One potential explanation is that some of the characteristics of the clown may trigger our fight-or-flight response.
Let’s start with the iconic clown costume and makeup. Typically, clowns wear a variety of prosthetics, including a wig, big floppy feet and hands, and padding inside their clothing to make them look larger around the middle. This turns their human shape into something a little less than human, which can induce an experience of cognitive and aesthetic dissonance.
Dissonance occurs when we attempt to process conflicting information. A human with disproportionate body parts, or even a body shape we know is not realistic, confuses our brain. This is similar to why realistic robots, CGI characters, and puppets make us feel uncomfortable; they don’t look totally human, but they are close, so we can’t accurately read their body language, in turn signaling the body to “beware!” These characters reside in what researchers call the “uncanny valley,” where our brain just can’t seem to figure out what we are looking at, or if it is safe.
Moving from the costume to the clown’s makeup, the sense of dissonance becomes more intense. In addition to body language, humans depend on reading facial expressions to understand and predict others’ actions and behaviors. We learn literally from birth the signs of someone who is happy and someone who is a threat. We're constantly picking up small, almost imperceptible changes in faces—how eyebrows rise and fall, how the corner of the mouth may turn up or down.
These critical observations allow us to respond appropriately, letting us know whether we should feel safe, comfortable, and protected, or scared, frightened, and in harm's way. But facial expressions are often masked on clowns, making them similar to other terrifying masked characters; we don’t know what’s going on behind the paint, and that is scary.
Further, clowns often paint on exaggerated facial expressions over white paint, along with shapes like upside-down triangles that make their eyes appear larger, and some will even add large false teeth, all of which fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) studies have shown to activate our amygdala, the part of our brain highly involved in threat processing.
Given the many characteristics of the clown that inherently put our body on high alert, it doesn’t take much to go from suspicious uncertainty to full-blown fear, especially if the person underneath the mask behaves in a manner less than jolly.
Clown costumes are meant to symbolize joy, innocence, and cheerful fun, but when the actor inside subverts this expectation by being aggressive or threatening, (or, you know, killing a bunch of kids and eating them for dinner), it is an even deeper violation of our predictions and therefore all the more confusing and scary. The painted face is saying “happy,” but the body language, eyes, and mouth are powerfully communicating “threat!”
Identification of potential threats is integral to our survival, so it may take only one bad experience with a clown to solidify the character as a danger. This is the basic principle of classic conditioning as outlined by Ivan Pavlov (he’s the psychologist that conducted the famous experiment with the salivating dogs). This is how one bad clown at a friend’s birthday can lead to a lifelong fear of all floppy-footed entertainers.
From clowning tricksters to morose murderers with uncanny characteristics, perhaps the real question should be why anyone isn’t afraid of clowns. But, there are a number of studies showing that the presence of clowns in hospitals can reduce anxiety and provide comfort to sick kids. For example, in one controlled experiment, the “clown intervention” significantly reduced children's preoperative anxiety, and they showed better adjustment than children who did not engage with the clown. So fear not, there is still hope for joyful clowns, but perhaps it’s time to retire the elephantine feet and heavily painted face.
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