Perhaps you are made particularly uncomfortable by circus clowns, or maybe a friend or family member expressed fright when encountering a clown entertainer at a child’s birthday party. As silly as the situation may sound, the fearful emotions are all too real. This is coulrophobia.
For the uninitiated, the definition of coulrophobia is, quite simply, the fear of clowns. The coulrophobia pronunciation is “Kull-rho-foe-bee-uh”, although the term itself is relatively new to the English language. In fact, it is believed to have been first brought into use during the 1980s and grown in recognition via the internet. However, having a fear of clowns is nothing new, and it is a phobia that is almost surprisingly common. In fact, people have been scared of clowns for centuries, practically for the entire time clowns have been in existence, well before people ever began to define coulrophobia.
As with all phobias, when it comes to clown phobia there are different degrees to which a person reacts to their fear. Much of it is mental, but many people experience physical reactions as well. For most, these reactions occur when in the actual presence of a clown or even when seeing one on TV, but for some the phobia runs so deep that even reading about clowns (Stephen King’s 1986 novel, It, is a definite no-go) or hearing about them through others can proke them.
The symptoms of coulrophobia- fear of clowns include (but are not limited to) the following:
- Feelings of anxiety (anxiousness or nervousness, butterflys in the stomach, difficulty focusing, etc.)
- Nausea (actual vomiting in the presence of a clown is rare, but it can happen)
- Trembling in any part of the body
- “Pins and needles” feeling
- Increased heartbeat
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing regularly
- Crying or even screaming
- Intense feelings of dread or terror
Why Are Clowns Scary?
For those who are unafflicted with a phobia of clowns (especially those who are clowns themselves), coming to understand coulrophobia can be rather difficult. After all, clowns are largely associated with children and circuses, and they are intended to make people laugh and bring about happiness– just what could be so scary about that?
Well, the thing about phobias is that they are not entirely rational and never have been. Phobias are almost an unnecessary fear of something, to the point where it can affect a person’s ability to function in the presence of whatever it is they fear. For example, a person with arachnophobia (the fear of spiders) is often very afraid of even the small, harmless types of spiders and could even be triggered just by the presence of their webs. For others, of course, if there is no danger, there is no reason to be afraid.
That said, trying to tell a person with a phobia that there is no logical reason for them to be afraid is not bound to work as it is really telling them to go against their instincts. If you’re in the presence of a clown and your natural reaction is to break out in cold sweats and raise your heartbeat, that’s a very powerful message your body is sending you– “Danger! Get away!” So, someone coming along and basically telling you that your body is wrong is likely to be ineffective and counterproductive.
Even so, those in the psychology field know that behind every phobia, there is at least some base of reason no matter how small. With coulrophobia, here are some of the common reasons why psychologists believe people fear clowns:
- Clown makeup and clothing makes them unrecognizable as humans
- Clown makeup often limits the amount of expressions they can display or worse, overexaggerates them
- In circus settings, clowns are often associated with mischievous acts
- Certain works of horror (like the aforementioned Stephen King novel) have associated clowns with evildoings
- Many people choose to dress up as “evil clowns” during costume parties and Halloween, thus helping to contribute to the fears of others
Actual “evil clowns” in real life (like serial murderer and children’s party clown, John Wayne Gacy) have of course not helped matters either. But overall, it is the unfamiliarity of clowns that seems to provoke people’s fears the most. On at least a subconcious level, people with coulrophobia are left wondering things like, “Just what IS under that makeup?” Basically, clowns just don’t appear to be human, and that is what frightens people more than anything.
As mentioned earlier, coulrophobia is surprisingly common. However, as with many phobias, some practitioners in the psychology field may use the coulrophobia definition a little too broadly and may therefore diagnose people with the phobia even when incidents were isolated or not that severe. So, while not too much research has been on the subject, the statistics that do exist may be a little skewed as to the number of people who actually have an abnormal fear of clowns.
That said, there is still a lot of interesting information to be learned from the facts that have been gathered surrounding this phobia, and learning more about it is key to both understanding it and helping to treat it (especially when it is you or a loved one who happens to have it). So, here are some interesting coulrophobia facts:
- Coulrophobia is found to be much more prevalent in children, and in fact the majority of children are at least made uncomfortable by clowns (a 2008 University of Sheffield study discovered this when looking to redecorate a children’s hospital ward– needless to say, clowns were out of the question after that).
- The fear is actually so prevalent among children that clowns who visit hospitals will usually wait in a child’s doorway and only enter the room if invited to do so by the young patient.
- Many people with coulrophobia may also have at least some level of fear when it comes to Santa Claus, and children with the phobia have expressed fear of “going to see Santa” around the holidays.
- It is believed that the phobia is triggered in many people by traumatic events at a young age, either involving clowns, clown material, or masked figures.
- Some researchers even believe that cases of the phobia spiked in the early 1990s after the film adaptation of It came out in 1990, and after Jack Nicholson portrayed the Joker in 1989’s Batman (Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight may have contributed to people’s fears as well).
- The phobia is estimated to afflict around 12 percent of American adults, and the numbers may be similar in other countries.
So, if you have coulrophobia, the important thing to take away from this is that you’re far from being alone in your fear. Even if you don’t happen to know anyone else who has it, there are many others out there who are just like you when it comes to their reactions to clowns.
Fighting the Fear (Treating Coulrophobia)
Fortunately, people with coulrophobia don’t necessarily need to live in fear of those painted, colorful entertainers for the rest of their lives. As with other phobias, there are ways to effectively treat the fear and learn to manage it so it doesn’t disrupt one’s life. There are many forms of treatment available to those with coulrophobia, including (but not limited to) the following:
- Exposure therapy– gradually increased exposure to clown-related material and clowns themselves, until the patient becomes comfortable with it all.
- Talking about the fear in sessions with a therpist and discovering the root of it (may help the patient realize that the fear was created in their mind, and that there is no danger in real life).
- Being introduced to and becoming acquainted with actual clowns (both in and out of makeup), thereby learning to see them as real, normal people.
- Learning more about clowns (the different types of clowns, their different styles of entertainment, clown colleges, history of clowns, etc.) to increase familiarity and understanding.
- Adopting breathing patterns and other self-calming techniques to ease symptoms of coulrophobia, namely anxiety and anything else that can actually disrupt everyday life.
If you or a loved one has coulrophobia (or you suspect that it is the culprit behind certain issues), don’t be afraid to seek out the help of a therpist. They will help you better understand the problem and will discuss treatment options with you to find what is likely to work best.