Evil clown archetype
Clown costumes tend to exaggerate the facial features and some body parts, such as hands and feet and noses. This can be read as monstrous or deformed as easily as it can be read as comical. The significant aberrations in a clown's face may alter a person's appearance so much that it enters the so-called uncanny valley—in which a figure is lifelike enough to be disturbing, but not realistic enough to be pleasant—and thus frightens a child so much that they carry this phobia throughout their adult life.
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. Additionally, the fact that much clown behavior is "transgressive" (anti-social behavior) can create feelings of unease.
The contemporary "evil clown" archetype develops in the 1980s, notably popularized by Stephen King's It, and perhaps influenced by John Wayne Gacy, a real-life serial killer dubbed the Killer Clown in 1978. Killer Klowns from Outer Space was a 1988 horror comedy dedicated to the topic. The Joker character in the Batman franchise was introduced as early as 1940, and has developed into one of the most-recognizable and iconic fictional characters in popular culture, leading the Wizard magazine's "100 Greatest Villains of All Time" ranking in 2006. Krusty the Clown (introduced 1989) is an influential parody of Bozo the Clown in The Simpsons. In episode Lisa's First Word (1992), children's fear of clowns features in the form of Bart being traumatized by an inexpertly-built Krusty the Clown themed bed, repeatedly uttering the phrase "can't sleep, clown will eat me...". The phrase inspired an Alice Cooper song in the album Dragontown (2001). and became a popular catchphrase. Websites dedicated to evil clowns and the fear of clowns appeared in the late 1990s.
Numerous films on the topic have been produced since the late 1980s. Early examples include the horror films Out of the Dark (1988) and Clownhouse (1989), followed by It (1990), a miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's novel. Examples of the late 1990s to 2000s include Carnival of Souls (1998), The Clown at Midnight (1999), Camp Blood (2000), Killjoy (2000), S.I.C.K. Serial Insane Clown Killer (2003), Fear of Clowns (2004), Within the Woods (2005), Coulrophobia (2006 short film), Secrets of the Clown (2007), Clownstrophobia (2009); examples of the 2010s include The Last Circus (2010), Klown Kamp Massacre (2010), Gingerclown (2012), Stitches (2012), Sloppy the Psychotic (2012), Bongo: Killer Clown (2014) and Clown (2014). One of the central characters in Álex de la Iglesia's The Last Circus (2010) is a circus' "funny clown" who is a violent psychopath in real life.
In a survey conducted by the University of Sheffield, to gather children’s opinions on décor for a 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.
In the Space To Care study aimed at improving hospital design for children, researchers from the University of Sheffield polled 250 children regarding their opinions on clowns; all 250 children in the study, whose ages ranged between four and sixteen, reported that they disliked clowns as part of hospital decor. Many of them, including some older children, stated in the poll that they, in fact, actively feared clowns. In other studies playing with therapeutic clowns reduced anxiety in children and improved healing in children with respiratory illness.
- Robertson, John G (2003). An Excess of Phobias and Manias. Senior Scribe Publications. p. 62. ISBN 978-0-9630919-3-2.
- The term is listed by the Online Etymology Dictionary (Harper, Douglas. "coulrophobia". Online Etymology Dictionary.) with the caveat that it "looks suspiciously like the sort of thing idle pseudo-intellectuals invent on the Internet and which every smarty-pants takes up thereafter". The prefix coulro- is "said to be built from Greek kolon 'limb,' with some supposed sense of 'stilt-walker,' hence 'clown'" (i.e. Greek κωλοβαθριστής kolobathristes "stilt-walker"). Probably coined in the late 1980s, the term "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." (Robertson 2003:62) The Oxford Dictionary of English adopted the term in 2010, also deriving it from kolobatheron "stilt" (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)
- ICD-10, which has been ridiculed for its compositional, highly specific system of codes allowing diagnosis of the kind of "burn due to water-skis on fire" or "crushed by crocodile" (Fred Pelzman, "The Craziness of ICD-10", MedPage Today 7/2/2015; Mark Liberman, Language Log, 2 July 2 2015) would classify a "fear of clowns" simply as "F40.298 Other specified phobia".
- "Why Are Some People Afraid Of Clowns?". Zidbits. October 20, 2011.
- "Trinity.edu". Trinity.edu. Retrieved 2011-07-05.
- "Why Are Some People Afraid Of Clowns?". Zidbits. 2011-10-20.
- Fear of clowns, yes it's real NPR, August 6, 2013
- "Top 100 Greatest Villains". Wizard 1 (177). July 2006.
- "Some pop culture creations demonize the red-nosed men". Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 2007-02-15. Retrieved 2008-01-19.
- Rohrer, Finlo (2008-01-16). "Why are clowns scary?". BBC News. Retrieved 2008-01-19.
- "Coulrophobia has spread to the Web, where sufferers can vent on sites such as ihateclowns.com and clownz.com. A sample posting: 'My hatred of clowns began when I was 5 years old. I was at a circus, and a clown came up to me and said, "Would you like to see the monkey I have in my box?" Well, of course I did, so I said yes. When I looked into the box, there was no monkey ... only a mirror.'" Steve Steinberg, "Nightmare with a red nose", Dallas Morning News, 25 January 2003.
- Eric Myford, Coulrophobia (2015), user-created IMDb list.
- Sherwin, Adam (July 8, 2006). "Don't send in the clowns: they scare the crowd". London: Times Online. Retrieved September 29, 2008.
- "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.
- Curtis, Dr. Penny; Birch, Dr. Jo (March 21, 2007). "Space to Care: Children's Perceptions of Spatial Aspects of Hospitals". University of Sheffield.
- "Clowns 'Too Scary' For Children's Wards In Hospitals – Sky News". News.sky.com. Retrieved December 8, 2011.
- Holden, Michael (January 16, 2008). "Don't send in the clowns – Reuters Oddly Enough". Reuters.com. Retrieved December 8, 2011.