Don’t send in the clowns

The fear of clowns a rel­a­tively new phe­nom­e­non We don’t know if there’s some­thing to be afraid of, but we have a paral­y­sis about not know­ing whether we should be scared.


While Ja­clyn An­drews can’t ra­tio­nally ex­plain her fear of clowns, she’s been avoid­ing them for years.

Walk­ing the mid­way at lo­cal fairs is to­tally out of the ques­tion, and lately she’s con­sid­ered dou­ble check­ing with fel­low par­ents be­fore at­tend­ing kids’ birth­day par­ties. She re­al­izes that might sound a little silly to some, but the clowns that haunted her night­mares as a young girl still evoke bad feel­ings.

“I’m pan­icked, can’t breathe, sweaty,” says An­drews, 35, de­scrib­ing how she feels when she sees a clown. “I get the over­whelm­ing need to get out — and now.”

The fear of clowns, known as coul­ro­pho­bia, is a rel­a­tively new phe­nom­e­non with very little re­search be­hind it. And while it’s not con­sid­ered an of­fi­cial pho­bia by the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion, its suf­fer­ers say the ex­pe­ri­ence is very real.

An­drews, a res­i­dent of Hamil­ton, feels anx­ious think­ing about the days ahead when evil clowns will be a fo­cal point of pop­u­lar cul­ture and prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble to avoid.

A re­make of Stephen King’s It ar­rives in the­atres next week and is ex­pected to draw huge au­di­ences in­trigued by the titu- lar shapeshifter, also known as Pen­ny­wise, who often takes the form of a clown.

And the up­com­ing sixth season of Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story, which be­gins air­ing Tues­day on FX Canada, is gen­er­at­ing buzz for the re­turn of Twisty, a de­mented clown with a taste for trick­ery and mur­der.

Clowns have ex­isted since an­cient Egypt, al­though their trade­mark white faces and colour­ful cos­tumes weren’t es­tab­lished un­til the early 1800s when Bri­tish en­ter­tainer Joseph Grimaldi be­gan play­ing Joey the Clown. A sim­i­lar look was adopted by Scot­tish busi­ness­man John Bill Rick­etts when he brought the mod­ern cir­cus to the United States a few years later.

For many decades the hap­pygo-lucky per­sonas of mod­ern clowns like Bozo and Ron­ald McDon­ald seemed in style, but a no­to­ri­ous Amer­i­can se­rial killer is con­sid­ered to be the in­spi­ra­tion for the ad­vent of the more sin­is­ter brand of clowns.

Be­fore he was con­victed for the mur­ders of 33 young men in 1980, John Wayne Gacy seemed like a rel­a­tively av­er­age guy, who some­times dressed as Pogo the Clown, a char­ac­ter he cre­ated while vol­un­teer­ing at chil­dren’s hos­pi­tals. After he was jailed, Gacy painted por­traits of him­self in clown cos­tume and the art­work be­came the fo­cus of ex­hi­bi­tions — and protests.

“Peo­ple learn to be afraid from the movies they see, and from the news they read — watch­ing other peo­ple be afraid,” said Martin Antony, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at Ry­er­son Univer­sity.

“Gacy may have trig­gered cer­tain direc­tors and writers to por­tray clowns in that way, and that may have ex­ac­er­bated fear of clowns.”

Two years after Gacy’s con­vic­tion, the film Poltergeist fea­tured a scene in which a young boy is dragged un­der his bed by a toy clown brought to life in the mid­dle of the night. And King’s novel It was re­leased in 1986 and adapted for TV in 1990, with Tim Curry play­ing the creepy Pen­ny­wise.

An­drews swears watch­ing the It minis­eries in mid­dle school scarred her for life, es­pe­cially mo­ments like its open­ing scene in which a young boy is lured by the killer clown to a sewer.

“(It) just did it in for me,” she says.

The fas­ci­na­tion with vi­cious clowns only grew as It be­came a favourite at video stores dur­ing the 1990s and other for­got­ten films like 1988’s Killer Klowns from Outer Space found another life on DVD along­side the clown­like doll used by se­rial killer Jig­saw in the Saw hor­ror movies.

Much to the dis­may of pro­fes­sional clown per­form­ers, those por­tray­als helped take the whole­some­ness out of a char­ac­ter once con­sid­ered a fix­ture of fam­ily en­ter­tain­ment.

A spate of creepy-clown sight­ings re­ported across North Amer­ica last year didn’t help their neg­a­tive per­cep­tion. Per­haps in­spired by pop­u­lar prank videos on YouTube, re­ports of in­di­vid­u­als wan­der­ing through neigh­bour­hoods while wear­ing men­ac­ing clown masks be­gan to spread. In the U.S., Tar­get stopped sell­ing scary clown masks as a re­sult.

Prof. Frank McAn­drew


The up­com­ing sixth season of Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story, which be­gins air­ing Tues­day on FX Canada, fea­tures clowns with a taste for trick­ery and mur­der.


A re­make of Stephen King’s it, fea­tur­ing a shapeshifter called pen­ny­wise, ar­rives in the­atres next week.

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