New study into coulrophobia (the fear of clowns) suggests its main causes are unpredictability and media exposure

If you’ve ever found yourself feeling uneasy around clowns, you’re not alone.

new study published on February 2, 2023 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology set out to investigate the origins of “coulrophobia” (as the fear of clowns is formally known), and the results are intriguing.

How prevalent is the fear of clowns?

Coulrophobia has been a widely documented phenomenon among both adults and children in various cultures for at least a century, but its exact prevalence is inconsistent across studies.

2022 survey of adults from 64 countries found that 54% of respondents reported having some degree of coulrophobia.

In the present study, about 47% of respondents said they were “not at all” afraid of clowns, 34% said “slightly afraid” about 14% said “moderately afraid” and 5% answered that were were “extremely afraid” of clowns.

Despite the inconsistent figures, there is clear evidence that coulrophobia affects a significant portion of the population, and the origins and causes of this fear remain unanswered.

Measuring coulrophobia

The researchers, from the University of South Wales in the UK, constructed a tool to measure the extent to which a range of hypothetical causes contributes to the fear of clowns.

They administered their 18-question “Origins of Fear of Clowns Questionnaire” (OFCQ) to 987 adults in the UK, who had an average age of 28.

The researchers found broad support for all of the eight factors that they had suspected might play some role.

Those include:

  1. Uncanny valley effect due to clowns’ “proto” human image
  2. Exaggerated facial features that convey a sense of threat
  3. Makeup that hides emotional signals and creates uncertainty
  4. (Red) makeup that evokes a disgust response due to association with death, infection, or injury
  5. Unpredictable behavior
  6. Fear learned from family members
  7. Fear learned from negative portrayals of clowns in media
  8. Fear originating from a frightening experience with a clown.

Surprisingly, the lowest level was found for questions relating to having had a frightening experience in the presence of a clown.

This indicates that simple, direct conditioning is an insufficient explanation for clown fear in the majority of individuals.

Topping the list: media influences and unpredictability

Though the survey supported a multifaceted explanation, the strongest factors were of media influences and unpredictability/uncertainty about clowns’ (harmful) intent.

This suggests a rational basis for the fear of clowns.

For instance, if one has reason to suspect harm in the presence of a specific stimulus, such as erratic or threatening behavior, then an aversion to that stimulus is rational.

Likewise, there was a lot of support for information-induced fear through the media and popular culture.

Fright-induced media content can have sustained effects into adulthood, particularly from exposure as a child or teenager.

The present study, for example, makes frequent references to Pennywise, the scary clown from Stephen King’s 1986 horror novel It.

Women find clowns even scarier

The study found that more females reported a fear of clowns compared to males, and that their fear was also more severe.

This is similar to previous research on other specific phobias like fear of snakes and spiders.

The reason for this difference is not clear, but some theories suggest that women may be more sensitive to potential threats, have stronger reactions to facial expressions, and are more likely to express their fear.

It gets better with age

The study also found that fear of clowns decreases as people get older, which matches up with other fears related to specific things (again, like spiders or snakes).

A gut response

The study also found that there is a more instinctive, gut response involved in clown fear, similar to the response experienced in the presence of fear-relevant stimuli like snakes or spiders.

This suggests that there are stimulus properties of clowns that engender such a response, even though the exact properties are still unknown.

Some of the clowns that are often described as scary do share some common physical attributes, such as pallor-like makeup with red accents.

These common physical attributes could contribute to the uncanny valley effect, whereby clowns are not-quite-human in appearance.

And the particular combination of pallor and redness in a clown’s makeup may be reminiscent of disease.

Some of the most famous scary clowns in cinema:

  • Pennywise from It (1990 and the remake in 2017)
  • The aliens from Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
  • The Poltergeist Clown from Poltergeist (1982)
  • Twisty from the TV series “American Horror Story: Freak Show

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