Afraid of clowns? You're not alone.


They didn’t start out to scare anyone.

Clowns have held a favored, albeit slightly outcast place throughout history – first, as comic relief to those in power, performing magic tricks, pranks or slapstick routines, then, later, as entertainers to the masses.

Disturbing reports from South Carolina of people dressed as clowns trying to lure children into the woods near Greenville, stirred for some, fears of the white-faced figures.

>>Got a question about the news? Read more Explainers here 

The clowns we see today – doing everything from taking orders at restaurants to performing at children’s birthday parties – can trace their history back hundreds of years to entertainers often dressed in bright clothes and, in some way hiding their identities.

For many, they are a reminder of an innocent time in our recent past (think Ronald McDonald, Clarabell and Bozo). For others, they represent some of their deepest fears (think Pennywise from Stephen King’s “It,” or the clown doll in “Poltergeist”).

So what is it about them that terrify some of us? Could be a lot of things, according to a study by Andrew McConnell Stott, Dean of Undergraduate Education and an English professor at the University of Buffalo, SUNY. Stott has written about the clown culture from the earliest of recorded mentions of what are now called clowns to the familiar clowns of the circus and, the ones we all find scary. 

Here’s a quick look at clowning  and what about it sets some of us on edge.

The beginning of scary clowns

Early on, clowns were not generally seen as scary.  They were jesters and entertainers, but not threatening as a rule. Stott speculates in his book “The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi,” that the death of Grimaldi, seen as the “father of the modern clowns” may have been the point where people began looking at clowns through a different lens.

According to Stott, while Grimaldi was considered one of the greatest of modern clowns, his personal life was nothing to laugh at. After enduring a difficult childhood, the death of his wife in childbirth and a son who drank himself to death, Grimaldi died a penniless alcoholic.

After Grimaldi’s death, a young  Charles Dickens was assigned to edit Grimaldi’s memoirs which painted a picture of a lonely life. It was Dickens' “The Pickwick Papers,” Stott says, that sets up a look at a tragic clown who gained laughs only at the expense of great personal pain. The passages about clowns in the book are believed to have been inspired by the tragic life Grimaldi’s son.

As Dickens advanced the theme of clowns destroying themselves from within, a clown portrayed by Jean-Gaspard Deburau, gained popularity in France. Deburau used white face paint with red lips and black eyebrows while performing. Deburau had a reputation as a sinister man and that reputation was born out when in 1836, he killed a boy by hitting him with a walking stick as the youngster hurled insults at him along a Paris street.

The clown as a dark figure would gain popularity a few years later when an Italian opera, “Pagliacci,” became popular. The opera featured a clown murdering his cheating wife on stage during a performance.

By the 20th Century, the clowns we think of today – identities concealed by makeup – were seen mostly as entertainment for children. According to Stott, it's the mask that hides the clown’s features that help to creating a sense of fear. 

“Where there is mystery, it’s supposed, there must be evil, so we think, ‘What are you hiding?” Stott said.

So, I’m scared of clowns, is there a name for that phobia?

Yes, there is. It’s called coulrophobia  which means the excessive fear of clowns.   

Am I the only one scared of them?

Nope. Not by a long shot. Should you ever feel that way, click here for a forum for those who, as the name implies, dislike clowns - ihateclowns.com. The mission statement for the website: “ihateclowns.com is the official website for people who are afraid of, or just plain hate, creepy, evil clowns. A perfect site for people suffering from coulrophobia (the fear of clowns).”

What can I do to overcome my fear of clowns?

Clowns are people who dress up in costumes, smear makeup on their faces and act silly. Mental health officials say seeing a person being transformed into a clown could help some realize the clown is a persona a person assumes. Some circus offer opportunities to help ease fears by allowing customers to see their clowns put on the makeup  (click here)

Types of clowns

There are three traditional types of clowns – the White-face, Auguste and The Character. White-face is what you think it is, a clown with white face makeup; Auguste is a zany clown with a flesh tone makeup base, and a character clown is a clown that can be any character, such as a cowboy, a doctor or a policeman.

Famous people scared of clowns It’s true that celebrities are just like us, especially if we are terrified of Bozo. Here are a few celebrities who prefer not to be around clowns:

• “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe,

• Actor Johnny Depp

• Rapper P. Diddy who is said to have had a “no clown” clause in one of his contracts with a venue where he was to perform 

• Comedian Carol Burnett

• Professional chef Anthony Bourdain

Sources: The Smithsonian Magazine; Movieweb.com; The Associated Press; All About Clowns  


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