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 psychology professor Joseph Durwin 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 developed 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 is a 1988 horror comedy dedicated to the topic. The Joker character in the Batman franchise was introduced in 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), 100 Tears (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's "funny clown" who is a violent psychopath in real life.
In the 1990s, a professional wrestler named Matt Osborne originated and played Doink the Clown, a mostly "evil clown" heel ("bad guy") character in the World Wrestling Federation, its successor promotion World Wrestling Entertainment and in several other promotions. Entering the ring to circus-style music – but played with a sinister, minor-key undertone – Doink would play tricks, some amusing, others more malevolent, on fans and fellow wrestlers alike. Following the revival of the Joker character in popular culture in the 2008 Batman movie The Dark Knight, Osborne re-made the character to resemble the hideously deformed movie Joker. The WWE at various points had other wrestlers playing the character and utilizing the gimmick.
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 décor for a forthcoming hospital redesign; all 250 children, whose ages ranged between four and sixteen, reported that they disliked clowns as part of hospital décor. 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.
2016 "Creepy Clown" epidemic
In late summer and early fall of 2016, several cities in the United States began to experience 'clown sightings', where menacing-looking clowns would be seen, sometimes at the edge of forests. The "Creepy Clown" is also referred to as "Killer Clown." The first sighting of these "Killer Clowns" was August 19 in Greenville, South Carolina by a little boy who told his mother that two clowns tried to lure him into the woods. After this appeared in the news, the sightings of clowns spread throughout the country. Sightings occurred in several states. Ben Radford, author of Bad Clowns, says that clown sightings are more common during periods of social anxiety and can be related to the psychological effect of priming.
In early October 2016, evil clown sightings occurred in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. A 13-year-old was cautioned by police after a 17-year-old female was pursued down a street by him. On 4 October 2016, a youth was arrested in Blakelaw, UK, in connection with reports of people allegedly dressing as clowns scaring passers-by.
- 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.
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- "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.(registration required)
- Curtis, Dr. Penny; Birch, Dr. Jo (March 21, 2007). "Space to Care: Children's Perceptions of Spatial Aspects of Hospitals". University of Sheffield.
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- "'Creepy clown' epidemic comes to Upstate NY, several sightings reported". newyorkupstate.com. Retrieved 30 March 2017.
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