Coulrophobia – Are You Afraid of Clowns?

29 January 2012

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Did you find Heath Ledger as The Joker scary? Then perhaps you suffer from coulrophobia, the abnormal fear of clowns. Join a self-confessed coulrophobic for a look at these guys and see if you are too. Like you don’t already know!

Why do so many people find clowns scary? Only a few years the Bestival Festival on the Isle of Wight in the UK had to rethink its plans. Each year there is a theme and they thought they would follow up their successful cowboy theme with one based around clowns. They had so many phone calls from adult ticket holders complaining that they would no longer be able to come because of their fear of clowns that the organizers had to rethink the theme.

So why is it that so many people are afraid of clowns? I am certainly no exception. One of my earliest memories is a visit to the circus where – sat on the ringside row, I watched the clowns make their entrance. They circled around the ring, laughing and jolly and one made a beeline for me, eager it seemed to shake my hands. The resulting hysteria almost, so my mother maintained for years, brought the house down. It seems that I was pretty much the most entertaining feature of the show.

Maternal lack of sympathy aside – as well as a lasting embarrassment throughout my childhood and teen years - why did I as a toddler find clowning about so terrifying? Was it that my burgeoning ability to process the facial features of others was put in to a form of panic-struck overdrive by the sight of so many exaggerated and colorful beings? Was it that the skin tone and facial appearance of the clowns threw me off kilter and – at some primal level at least – made me do the only thing I could which was, of course, to scream my head off?

Bring in the clowns? Blame the buggers! Even before psychology was an ‘ology’ people instinctively knew what made others tick. The clowning tradition did not evolve purely with entertainment in mind and so it might not be any surprise that a lot of adults as well as children find the distorted features of clowns more than a little disturbing. Many people even form an early fear of that arch-clown, Santa Claus. The thrill of fear can leave lasting memories and performers have been quick to use this through the centuries. However, when does a simple aversion become a phobia?

Why fear these harmless entertainers? I wasn’t a particularly sensitive child (unless it suited me, so I am told). Was it because I saw myself in their anarchic actions? Did they represent, however subconsciously, unreason and an out of control nature which I somehow recognized? Was I afraid of their casual violence towards each other and fearful that it would extend to me? Were they a mirror to my soul? Or was I just a wee wuss?

However you look at it, by the nineteen eighties the condition was so widespread that a word had to be coined for it – and what an odd word it is. Like all phobias it has its origins in Greek and the ‘coul’ part comes from the Greek for limb. It is a rather odd choice of words but the Greeks themselves had no equivalent to a clown so the real origin of the word comes from kolobathristes which is a stilt walker. Strange, but true.

When something is taken out of its usual context it can sometimes create a reaction that others may feel is disproportionate? I was lucky in many ways that McDonalds did not open one of its ‘restaurants’ in my home town until I was in my mid-teens. With all the rationality associated with teenage boys I found the presence of a certain Ronald McDonald completely unnerving. My mother had always told me not to talk to strange men and this man was, indeed, most peculiar.

Seeing the clown outside of a circus could have been what predicated by pubescent panic. Lon Chaney, famous for his portrayal of The Phantom of The Opera among others said ‘There is nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight’ and I for one am inclined to agree with that sentiment. So, when a clown is seen where it simply doesn’t belong it is, perhaps, quite human to have a negative reaction. After all, if Lon Chaney was spooked by them, who can blame me?

Significantly, a study at a UK hospital has gone some way to prove this theory. Around two hundred and fifty children were polled and all of them said that they found the visual representations of clowns around the hospital were scary. Yes, that’s right; every single respondent said that they were unhappy with the presence of clown images in the institution. Rather than encouraging a happy space the clowns were actually frightening the children.

So, what do we do about the clowns? Do we send them away? Most psychologists will tell you that the occasional scare can be good for the system. True, but a great deal of the population will not even believe that coulrophobia is a real condition. Perhaps after seeing a few of these pictures they may start to believe?

Image Credit
The Joker - Flickr User Mikl Oliver



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