Why are so many people afraid of clowns? We look at the science behind coulrophobia 6 years ago

Why are so many people afraid of clowns? We look at the science behind coulrophobia

Brought to you by Warner Bros. Pictures. 

The fears of a clown.


The new film adaptation of Stephen King's IT is one of the most anticipated films of 2017 and it's finally hit our cinema screens.

It has already scared the bejaysus out of preview audiences and Stephen King has even said he was "not prepared for how good it really was." High praise indeed. The return of Pennywise got us thinking about why so many people are afraid of clowns.

Let’s be honest here. Nobody really likes clowns. Not even kids, if a study into clown paintings in hospitals is anything to go by. 250 children were surveyed and the results were pretty conclusive.


"We found that clowns are universally disliked by children,” said researcher Dr Penny Curtis, who led the University of Sheffield study. “Some found them quite frightening and unknowable."

“Universally disliked.” Not what you’d call a glowing review there. Considering that clowns are meant to make people laugh, something has clearly gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Pop culture clowns


So what is it about the weird people dressed in creepy make-up and freaky clothes that we find so disconcerting? Well, pop culture has adopted the terrifying clown as an archetype so that certainly hasn’t helped.

Batman’s nemesis is a deranged clown, there’s Zeebo from Are You Afraid of the Dark?, the clown doll in Poltergeist and the list goes on and on. Even Charles Dickens had a scary clown in The Pickwick Papers.

afraid of clowns

Of course, the daddy of all scary clowns is Pennywise from IT. Pennywise has traumatised every generation who read the 1986 Stephen King novel or watched the original 1990 film adaptation. A psychotic demon clown who hunts children and who’s invisible to adults? Yeah, that’s enough to mess with any young mind.


Just look at this GIF and try to tell yourself that there’s nothing to fear.

Real life scary clowns

Then there’s life imitating art. Clowns were scary long before former clown and famous serial killer, John Wayne Gacy, made people rethink booking one for a child’s party. But he certainly didn’t help the cause.

And let’s not forget the bizarre craze for creepy clowns popping up on street corners and chasing people. If ever there was a punchable offence...


afraid of clowns

What’s the psychology behind coulrophobia?

Clown make-up apparently has the effect of making people emotionally uneasy. The disconnect between the painted expression and the person behind it messes with our minds. This “uncanny valley” effect relates to the unease people feel when something is almost, but not quite, human.

Painting a giant smile on your face also makes it look like you’ve something to hide. Johnny Depp famously said of clowns that it was impossible to tell if they were happy or “about to bite your face off.”

afraid of clowns

Another theory is that clowns are inherently unpredictable so we instinctively can’t trust them. Maybe this is what they get for invading people’s personal spaces and throwing buckets of confetti around willy-nilly. They’ve really nobody to blame but themselves.

Or maybe, just maybe, we get a little bit freaked out by grown adults who paint their faces in the sort of primary colours usually reserved for poisonous rainforest creatures. Just a thought.

We’ll leave the final word to IT creator, Stephen King.

It seems safe to say that the new version of IT isn’t going to make clowns any less frightening but it does look certain to be major hit. With 197 million views within the first 24 hours, there are plenty of people out there who are happy to be scared by clowns! Can you handle it?

IT is in cinemas nationwide from today. 

Brought to you by Warner Bros. Pictures.