People Fear Clowns for the Same Reason They Fear Uncertainty

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Photo: Sharon Dominick/Getty Images

Well, the clowns have finally spoken.

On Sunday, seemingly pushed to the brink by one too many reports of clowns luring kids into the woods, or brandishing knives in subway stations, or generally lurking around and scaring the bejeezus out of unassuming passersby, World Clown Association president Randy Christensen issued a statement in defense of clownkind. His argument: The so-called creepy clowns aren’t really clowns at all. Conflating these masked pranksters with actual clowns, he wrote, is akin to putting Jason Voorhees, the goalie-masked serial killer of Friday the 13th, in the same category as professional hockey players: Maybe they share an outward trait or two, but what’s underneath is dramatically, fundamentally different. “Please understand,” Christensen wrote, “just because someone wears a rubber Halloween mask, that does not make one a clown!” He continued: 

Just as a Haunted House event may have a “doctor” wearing surgical gear, carrying a bloody chainsaw, people need to understand that this character is NOT a real doctor. He is a person portraying an evil character in order to scare people. In the same way, people dressed as horror clowns are not “real clowns.”

Fair enough. The head clown makes a good point: Reasonable adults, after all, can see Frankenstein without developing a long-lasting fear of scientists; we can watch Cujo and still be cool with dogs; neither Psycho nor The Shining has managed to ruin hotel caretakers in general. Dress up as any of those things for Halloween, and you’d need to add some extra flourishes and tack on an adjective in front of it — “mad,” “possessed,” “evil” — to turn your costume from something mundane into something scary.

World Clown Association president Randy Christensen

But as the past few months have proven, this is decidedly not the case with clowns — to many, a regular clown and a scary clown are one and the same. You could argue that it’s because pop culture has conditioned us to think of clowns as frightening — think John Wayne Gacy, Pennywise, that thing in Poltergeist — but those are more symptoms than a cause. Besides, kids’ media has traditionally portrayed clowns as happy rather than menacing, and yet plenty of kids still find them unsettling: In 2008, a team of British researchers interviewed roughly 250 kids about their feelings on hospital décor and found that clown-themed decorations, contrary to popular belief, don’t make a pediatric ward feel more whimsical or more welcoming. Nearly all of the children in the study disliked clowns; in some cases, they found them downright terrifying.

The fear had to start somewhere. So how did a well-intentioned breed of children’s entertainment become one of the only tropes where we have trouble distinguishing between horror and real life?

One possibility: Clowns embody ambiguity, something we’re not wired to comfortably accept. Generally speaking, humans aren’t great with handling uncertainty, a collective weakness that’s helped psychologists home in on a definition of creepiness: In a study published earlier this year in New Directions in Psychology, researchers argued that creepiness is a by-product of ambiguity — you feel scared when you know something can hurt you, but you’re creeped out when you just can’t tell if it’s actually threat.

In September, one of the co-authors of that study, Knox College psychology professor Francis T. McAndrew, explained in the Conversation that the hypothesis fits especially well with the fear of clowns: “They’re mischievous, which puts people constantly on guard,” he wrote. “People interacting with a clown during one of his routines never know if they are about to get a pie in the face or be the victim of some other humiliating prank.” Other stock horror villains, by contrast, are characters that you’re inclined to trust in real life. Take doctors, to borrow Christensen’s example: The scariness comes from the perversion of something benevolent into something malicious. With clowns, that baseline goodness was never firmly fixed to begin with.

And there’s a second layer to clowns’ ambiguity — not just what they do, but how they look while they’re doing it. In McAndrew’s study, strange physical features, “such as bulging eyes, a peculiar smile or inordinately long fingers,” didn’t necessarily create creepiness on their own, but they did magnify creepiness when it was present. A clown’s unnatural features, then, enhance the effect of the single most unnatural one: the constant smile. As Steven Schlozman, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, told Vulture in 2014, clowns are a near-perfect example of the uncanny: “You recognize a smile, your brain registers that smiles are largely good things — and yet you can’t smile all the time, because if you’re smiling all the time, something’s not right,” he said. “We take cues from the way people behave, but if there’s no change in the way they look or the way they act … that makes them very scary.”

To break it down a little more: Horror tropes often depend on context. To revisit the Jason Voorhees reference, a guy in a goalie mask isn’t scary when he’s suited up and on the ice, but he’s definitely going to freak some people out if he roams the neighborhood that way. Scariness rarely exists in a vacuum; it happens when things subvert our expectations. The trouble with clowns is that subversion is baked right into who they are.

Even the good ones. “We stay on the positive side of things providing fun, g-rated, child-friendly entertainment,” Christensen wrote in his statement. “We hope our audience realizes that there are different categories in entertainment.” This is true. The problem is, there’s really only one category of clown.