ShortList is supported by you, our amazing readers. When you click through the links on our site and make a purchase we may earn a commission. Learn more

Why are so many people terrified of clowns? Psychology has an answer

Why are the USA's continued clown sightings freaking us out so much?

Why are so many people terrified of clowns? Psychology has an answer
10 October 2016

Well that escalated quickly...

Following creepy clown sightings which spread across the US like big-shoed wildfire, this nightmarish phenomenon has now reached these shores with police across England called to dozens of incidents so far.

We've had a man dressed as a clown in County Durham wielding what looked like a machete following four children to school, another clown brandishing an unspecified weapon (a particularly menacing balloon animal perhaps?) jumping out on a cyclist in Eastbourne, and many other worrying clown sightings.

But why is this news story so eerie? More to the point, why are we so terrified of clowns? They're supposed to be hilarious slapstick characters; the sort of entertainers that a six-year-old child would want to watch making balloon animals at a birthday party, yet there's no denying that there's something sinister about them. Well experts might have an answer.

Andrew Stott, an English professor who specialises in clown culture (honest), told The Telegraph, “Clowns have always been associated with danger and fear, because they push logic up to its breaking point. They push our understanding to the limits of reason and they do this through joking but also through ridicule.”

Clowns also play on the Freudian concept of the uncanny, as Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Steven Schlozman explained to "That’s where something is familiar enough to be recognisable but weird enough to give you the shivers. The uncanny explains a lot of horror tropes, where you look at something and it’s not quite right - like a human face that’s decomposing. It’s recognizable, but just enough away from normal to scare you. In my lectures, I’ll show a slide of a beagle, and I have a series of Photoshopped slides where I keep changing the eyes of the beagle and it gets creepier and creepier, because you recognise that there’s something not right about it, and it takes you a second to place it." 

He continues, "I just went back and watched Magic with Anthony Hopkins, the one with the puppet, which I hadn’t seen in a long time, and when that ventriloquist doll has this creepy stuck grimace, it’s horrifying. Again, you recognise 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."

So clowns make us feel uneasy because there's something just not quite right about them - something that horror movies over the years have played on, turning the smiling, make-up-covered clowns into serial killers and monsters and thereby further fuelling the stereotype. 

There you have it, a rational explanation for our fear of clowns. Still, we'd rather not find one lurking in our bushes after dark. Stay safe, everyone.