The term is of recent origin, probably dating from the 1980s. According to one author on the subject of phobias, it "has been coined more on the Internet than in printed form because it does not appear in any previously published, psychiatric, unabridged, or abridged dictionary." The author also notes, "regardless of its less-than-verifiable etymology, coulrophobia exists in several lists."
The prefix coulro- may be a neologism derived from the Ancient Greek word κωλοβαθριστής (kōlobathristēs) meaning "stilt-walker."[nb 1] Although the concept of a clown as a figure of fun was unknown in classical Greek culture, stiltwalking was practiced. The Online Etymology Dictionary states that the term "looks suspiciously like the sort of thing idle pseudo-intellectuals invent on the Internet and which every smarty-pants takes up thereafter".
According to a psychology professor at California State University, Northridge, young children are "very reactive to a familiar body type with an unfamiliar face". Researchers who have studied the phobia believe there is some correlation to the uncanny valley effect.
In a survey conducted by the University of Sheffield, to gather children’s opinions on décor for an forthcoming hospital redesign, it was found that the children did not like clown décor in the hospital or physicians' office settings. Researcher Dr. Penny Curtis said, "We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found the clown images to be quite frightening and unknowable." In other studies, however, playing with therapeutic clowns reduced anxiety in children and improved healing in children with respiratory illness.
It is argued that notorious clown figures in literature (Pennywise in It) and real life (John Wayne Gacy) have contributed to adults being averse to clowns. Additionally, the fact that much clown behavior is "transgressive" (anti-social behavior) can create feelings of unease.
- Robertson, John G (2003). An Excess of Phobias and Manias. Senior Scribe Publications. p. 62. ISBN 978-0-9630919-3-2.
- Quinion, Michael. "Coulrophobia". World Wide Words. Retrieved 14 March 2011.
- Stevenson, Angus, ed. (2010), "coulrophobia noun", Oxford Dictionary of English ((subscription or UK public library membership required)) (online ed.), Oxford University Press, retrieved 14 March 2011
- Crosswell, Julia, "clown", Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins ((subscription or UK public library membership required)) (online ed.), Oxford University Press, retrieved 14 February 2011
- Harper, Douglas. "coulrophobia". Online Etymology Dictionary.
- "Trinity.edu". Trinity.edu. Retrieved 2011-07-05.
- "Why Are Some People Afraid Of Clowns?". Zidbits. 2011-10-20.
- "Health | Hospital clown images 'too scary'". BBC News. 2008-01-15. Retrieved 2011-07-05.
- Finlo Rohrer (2008-01-16). "Why are clowns scary?". BBC News.
- Rodriguez McRobbie, Linda (July 31, 2013). "The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary". Smithsonian.com. p. 3. Retrieved 12 October 2014.
- Fear of clowns, yes it's real NPR, August 6, 2013