Clowns are a hot topic right now, thanks to the epidemic of scary clown sightings and the redo of Stephen Kings classic novel “IT” into a feature film. It’s been said that King was the first to portray a clown character as an evil homicidal killer or a demon in physical form. However, the fear of clowns was around long before King released “IT”. King relates to an audience in Hamburg in 2013 that when coming up with the premise for the novel, he asked himself, what would terrify children the most? His eventual answer would be, CLOWNS.
Coulrophobia is the term for the fear of clowns and you won’t find it in the DSM-5 or The World Health Organization’s definitions because it’s not an official diagnosis. It’s a term that has arisen in popular culture to describe the specific phobia of clowns that is usually formed in childhood. So why is it that as children we develop an intense fear of these colorful tropes that are intended to give us entertainment, usually in the form of comedy?
According to many researchers, the fear is linked to what is known as The Uncanny Valley effect. This is where there is a familiar shape, such as a body, that is mixed with something unfamiliar or distorted, such as a theatrically painted clown face. It creates a sense of unease, especially when you add that clowns can, for entertainment purposes, exhibit strange and abnormal behaviors. These behaviors are actually in a normal society considered anti-social. Serial killer John Wayne Gacey would later add to this notion as he was known to volunteer for many charity events dressed as Pogo The Clown.
So let’s get back to clowns in pop culture and what effect they have on our psyche’s as individuals. Stephen King propelled the figure into the culture enmasse with his novel IT, but the fear of clowns has been around for as long as humans in costume have. Isn’t that why we dress up at Halloween time, in order to frighten each other and keep the beasts at bay?
My own personal fear of clowns happened long before the novel IT, (even though I read it with vigor in the early 90’s). When I ponder back in time I remember my mother attempting to dress me up as a Raggedy Ann doll on a budget, but the result was this creepy grotesque clown child. Don’t get me wrong, I admire my mother because she has an amazing creative ability to make homemade costumes out of nothing, but this one had the opposite effect of a nice and happy doll (which honestly I find dolls creepy too). However, that still didn’t give me a fear of clowns, for, after all, it was me under that costume and I clearly knew that.
My fear of clowns appeared naturally upon seeing a movie I probably shouldn’t have been watching when I was 6 years old. That movie was Poltergeist, and the scene was the infamous “clown pulling child under the bed” scene. At the time I had a giant Raggedy Ann type doll my grandfather had given me. It was a massive home made doll that stood taller than I did and after watching Robbie from Poltergeist get helplessly strangled and dragged under the bed, I was terrified of that giant doll.
The scene from Poltergeist is a little bit different than a fear of humans dressed as clowns. It’s a fear of a toy that is a replica of that human costume. It also relates to the fear of dolls as well. Creepy inanimate objects coming to life, possessed by an evil demon, that are out to violently murder the helpless child. Not only that but they are placed in a setting that is supposed to be safe and secure – your bedroom. They are there to remove all the security that means so much to children.
It’s important I think to realize that the child, Robbie, was afraid of this clown doll long before it came to life to attack him. This connects to a prime notion that exists in IT, that the evil that was in the house read the child’s fear and used that to attack him. In the Stephen King novel, the character of Pennywise does this as well. He knows what frightens the children, and later the same characters as adults, and he not only takes on the form of a clown but possesses other individuals and transforms into other beings of terror. But always the prime presence of evil is the clown because it strongly connects to a fear that children have.
As children, we have very little control over our environment and we depend on adults to provide us with the security that leads us to be healthy adults. The clown represents a very deceptive form of an adult; one who is attempting to lure us with promises of fun and toys, but it hides its true self under a guise of a curly colorful wig, white makeup, a gaudy exaggerated mouth and a ridiculous red nose. It’s a perfect figure to then visually distort even further into a demonic clown sporting razor sharp teeth, demonic red eyes and wielding blood stained weapons. It’s enough to terrify even the boldest of adults, and according to recent reports for the 2017 movie of IT, even professional clowns, (but for a more financial reason).
So how does this translate to modern day-to-day doings, besides clowns fearing the loss of revenue due to a public backlash from fear? There has been an epidemic of scary clown sightings, which was discussed on one of our Podcasts on TCF. The terror that has always been on the screen now turns into a sort of urban legend, coming alive in reality, roaming the streets at night, or brandishing a knife in the forest. I could sum it up to hype due to knowing about the production of the movie IT, which ironically is released almost 27 years after the mini series, as Pennywise is due to re appear every 27 years to terrorize children. However, the hype couldn’t happen unless there was a deep response from society as a whole. Which means “cha-ching” for the studios!
It is clear that even as adults, the fear of clowns echoes back to us long after our childhood experiences fade into memory. Some individuals can develop a real phobia where just the picture of a clown can cause a traumatic response. Most of us grow out of that childhood fear and realize that the clown figures are simply a representation of our own fears and vulnerabilities as a child. I haven’t seen the latest version of IT yet, but I fully intend to in a few days. I can, however, recommend to us all that we face our fears like the characters in the movies do. Even Robbie was able to fend off that clown and rip it to shreds!
Naturally, the presence of clowns is in abundance in our culture and couldn’t all be included in a single blog post. However, if you wish to share any childhood experiences with clowns, or any modern day clown sightings or pictures, please leave a comment.
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