Their grinning faces and propensity for slapstick humor are supposed to delight and entertain. For some of us, however, the sight of a clown is enough to have us hiding behind the sofa in terror. So just what is it about these colorful characters that instils fear in otherwise-rational minds?
The clown’s origins can be traced back to the theaters of ancient Rome and Greece, where the characters of fools were used to generate laughs. Such characters only became known as “clowns,” however, by Shakespearean times.
Then the 17th century saw the clown concept develop from Italy’s improvisational Commedia dell’arte form to something called Harlequinade, a U.K.-founded genre influenced by the pantomime. In the latter, the clown, alongside the harlequin, was the main character.
And it was from Harlequinade that Joseph Grimaldi, one of history’s most famous clowns, emerged. Indeed, he became largely responsible for the contemporary clown’s appearance because he was the first to wear white makeup. But while he entertained thousands with his physical comedy, his life off stage was far from joyful.
Behind the scenes, Grimaldi’s life was scarred by the deaths of his wife and son. So much so, in fact, that when Grimaldi passed away the ever-melancholy Charles Dickens was asked to edit his memoirs, and the idea of the clown as a comic figure tinged with darkness began to take hold.
Moreover, as the years progressed the image became difficult to shake. The French clown Pierrot, for example, became infamous for murdering a young boy with his walking stick, while clowns in the arts were increasingly depicted as having sinister sides. Indeed, by the time the clown moved from the theater to the circus, its unsettling reputation was firmly in place.
Then, in the 20th century, everything changed. Certainly, when television came along clowns became exclusively entertainers for children. And their strangeness, it seems, became altogether more sinister through kids’ eyes.
“Where there is mystery, it’s supposed there must be evil,” Andrew McConnell Stott, an English professor at the University at Buffalo, told Smithsonian. “So we think, ‘What are you hiding?’”
It’s no surprise, then, that clowns, with their permanently painted faces and exaggerated expressions, strike terror into even the most rational of people. This instinctive horror, in fact, even has a name – coulrophobia.
While relatively few suffer from full-blown phobias, there’s definitely something about clowns that puts many of us on edge. Some believe this can be explained by a theory known as “uncanny valley.”
Its premise is that things that resemble people but are somehow different – like clowns – naturally evoke a sense of fear or creepiness. Life-like robots and puppets elicit similar reactions.
Steven Scholzman, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, told Vulture that the “uncanny valley” theory “explains a lot of horror tropes.” He explained, “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.”
If the “uncanny valley” effect isn’t enough to frighten you, though, the modern-day clown’s macabre reputation should do the trick. Indeed, the evil clown archetype, seemingly inspired by real-life serial killers and horror movie characters, is the stuff of which nightmares are made.
Take John Wayne Gacy, for example. From 1972 to 1978 he molested and killed more than 30 males in Cook County, Illinois. And when he was finally caught, it was revealed that he had worked as a kids’ entertainer by the name of Pogo the Clown.
Gacy’s one-time occupation – along with a bizarre artistic flair that saw him paint horrifying pictures of clowns and monsters from his prison cell – cemented the killer a place in history. But in case his reputation wasn’t enough to lodge the evil clown in the public conscience forever, horror author Stephen King stepped in to complete the job.
In 1986 King wrote It, a novel that follows a timeless monster which takes the form of sadistic clown Pennywise as it stalks the children of a small town. When the book was adapted for television in 1990, Pennywise was brought to life in all his manic, wise-cracking glory. And his white face, red hair and clawed hands have since become synonymous with the notion of the evil clown.
But It wasn’t the first, and it certainly won’t be the last, slice of popular culture to interpret the clown in sinister ways. Batman’s Joker, for example, combines the makeup and persona of a clown with a psychopathic sense of humor and a murderous streak.
Meanwhile, music groups like Slipknot and Insane Clown Posse have incorporated the image of the dark clown into their stage personas. And artist R. K. Sloane uses evil clowns as central figures in his bizarre and psychedelic paintings.
With popular culture telling us that clowns are something to be feared and mistrusted, then, is it any wonder that coulrophobia is no laughing matter? Some estimate, in fact, that as many as 12 percent of American adults suffer from a fear of clowns to some degree.
A 2008 survey by the U.K.’s University of Sheffield, meanwhile, concluded that the majority of children – the one group supposed to find them entertaining – actually dislike or even fear clowns. As child psychologist Patricia Doorbar told BBC News, “Very few children like clowns. They are unfamiliar and come from a different era. They don’t look funny, they just look odd.”