I have a mild case of coulrophobia. It’s not a crippling fear—it doesn’t keep me up at night, like some of my other fears do—but if I’m walking down the street and see a clown coming towards me, I’ll cross that street in a heartbeat.
I’m not alone. Clowns have climbed their giant shoes into the short list of the most common phobias, and now rank right up there with snakes, spiders, public speaking, and dentists.
So what’s the cause of this irrational fear? Here’s one easy answer: THE MEDIA. Unlike my fear of clowns, the media does keep me up at night, because it’s so entertaining. But evil clowns have permeated all forms of popular media, and are therefore hard to avoid.
Pennywise, the sadistic child-killing monster from Stephen King’s It, is the fictional clown most commonly fingered for causing people’s coulrophobia. Pennywise doesn’t have a monopoly on the killer clown industry, though. On TV, an early episode of The Simpsons inspired the internet meme “Can’t sleep, clown will eat me.” In the world of comics, Batman’s archnemesis is the Joker, a green haired agent of chaos with a penchant for committing gruesome murders while laughing hysterically. Similarly, perhaps as a blatant knockoff of Batman, Spawn’s archnemesis is the Violator, a giant, gruesome demon who disguises himself as a short, stocky clown. And then of course there’s corny examples of evil clowns, like the ‘80s movie Killer Klowns from Outer Space, or the musical group Insane Clown Posse, which are both more stoopid than scary, but they’re still kinda scary in their own way, especially ICP.
The media may have reinforced coulrophobia, but that’s not to say clowns aren’t inherently terrifying. Psychologists claim that clowns’ exaggerated features violate our basic idea of what people should look like. Since reading facial expressions is a social survival skill, our inability to read a clown’s emotions puts us on guard. The painted white face, fake red nose, and uncanny permasmile mask a clown’s true feelings and identity, which triggers our distrust and suspicion.
Phobias are irrational fears. But is fearing clowns really irrational? Consider America’s evil clown history. Consider David Friedman, popular children’s party clown, alleged child molester, and subject of the documentary film Capturing the Friedmans. Or better yet, consider John Wayne Gacy, the scariest clown ever. Gacy raped and murdered 33 teenage boys in the ‘70s. Most of them he buried in his crawlspace. When he wasn’t raping and murdering innocents, Gacy dressed up as “Pogo the Clown” to attend parades and children’s parties. Gacy once said “A clown can get away with murder.” While on death row, he took up oil painting. He painted punk rockers, and dwarves playing baseball, but mostly, he painted clowns. PSYCHO.
Of course, it’s wrong to prejudge all clowns based on the depraved actions of a couple sick, rednosed individuals. I met some clowns once at a party (it was an adult party, the clowns were off duty and dressed like normals) and they were perfectly nice people. I even told them about my fear of clowns, and they were very understanding. Clowns aren’t for everyone. Then they took me out back, brutalized me with banana cream pies, electrocuted me with joy buzzers, and devoured my soul.
Just because you’re paranoid, don’t mean they’re not after you.