DON'T SEND IN THE CLOWNS
FRANK T. MCANDREW
McAndrew is a social psychologist and a professor at Knox College.
He also blogs for Psychology
Over the course of his career his research has been featured in
National Public Radio, the BBC, the New York Times, and
NBC's TODAY Show.
CLOWNS CREEP US OUT
past several months, creepy clowns have been terrorizing America,
with sightings of actual clowns in at least ten different states.
fiendish clowns have reportedly tried to lure women and children
into the woods, chased people with knives and machetes, and yelled
at people from cars. They’ve been spotted hanging out in
cemeteries and they have been caught in the headlights of cars
as they appear alongside desolate country roads in the dead of
isn’t the first time there has been a wave of clown sightings
in the United States. After eerily similar events occurred in
the Boston area in the 1980s, Loren Coleman, a cryptozoologist
who studies the folklore behind mythical beasts such as Bigfoot
and the Loch Ness Monster, came up with something called ‘The
Phantom Clown Theory,’ which attributes the proliferation
of clown sightings to mass hysteria (usually sparked by incidents
witnessed only by children).
impossible to determine which of these incidents are hoaxes and
which are bona fide tales of clowning around taken to the extreme.
Nonetheless, the perpetrators seem to be capitalizing on our longstanding
love-hate relationship with clowns, tapping into the primal dread
that so many children (and more than a few adults) experience
in their presence.
a 2008 study conducted in England revealed that very few children
actually like clowns. It also concluded that the common practice
of decorating children’s wards in hospitals with pictures
of clowns may create the exact opposite of a nurturing environment.
It’s no wonder so many people hate Ronald McDonald.
a psychologist, I’m not just interested in pointing out
that clowns give us the creeps; I’m also interested in why
we find them so disturbing. Earlier this year I published a study
entitled “On the Nature of Creepiness” with one of
my students, Sara Koehnke, in the journal New Ideas in Psychology.
While the study was not specifically looking at the creepiness
of clowns, much of what we discovered can help explain this intriguing
OF THE CLOWNS
characters have been around for thousands of years. Historically,
jesters and clowns have been a vehicle for satire and for poking
fun at powerful people. They provided a safety valve for letting
off steam and they were granted unique freedom of expression –
as long as their value as entertainers outweighed the discomfort
they caused the higher-ups.
and others persons of ridicule go back at least to ancient Egypt,
and the English word ‘clown’ first appeared sometime
in the 1500s, when Shakespeare used the term to describe foolish
characters in several of his plays. The now familiar circus clown
– with its painted face, wig and oversized clothing –
arose in the 19th century and has changed only slightly over the
past 150 years.
the trope of the evil clown anything new. Earlier this year, writer
Benjamin Radford published Bad Clowns, in which he traces
the historical evolution of clowns into unpredictable, menacing
of the creepy clown really came into its own after serial killer
John Wayne Gacy was captured. In the 1970s, Gacy appeared at children’s
birthday parties as Pogo the Clown and also regularly painted
pictures of clowns. When the authorities discovered that he had
killed at least 33 people, burying most of them in the crawl space
of his suburban Chicago home, the connection between clowns and
dangerous psychopathic behaviour became forever fixed in the collective
unconscious of Americans.
the notoriety of Gacy, Hollywood exploited our deep ambivalence
about clowns via a terror-by-clown campaign that shows no signs
of going out of fashion. Pennywise, the clown from Stephen King’s
1990 movie It, may be the scariest movie clown. But there are
also the Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), the scary
clown doll under the bed in Poltergeist (1982), the zombie
clown in Zombieland (2009) and, most recently, the murderous
clown in All Hallow’s Eve (2013).
however, can help explain why clowns – the supposed purveyors
of jokes and pranks – often end up sending chills down our
was the first empirical study of creepiness, and I had a hunch
that feeling creeped out might have something to do with ambiguity
– about not really being sure how to react to a person or
1,341 volunteers ranging in age from 18 to 77 to fill out an online
survey. In the first section of the survey, our participants rated
the likelihood that a hypothetical ‘creepy person’
would exhibit 44 different behaviours, such as unusual patterns
of eye contact or physical characteristics like visible tattoos.
In the second section of the survey, participants rated the creepiness
of 21 different occupations, and in the third section they simply
listed two hobbies that they thought were creepy. In the final
section, participants noted how much they agreed with 15 statements
about the nature of creepy people.
indicated that people we perceive as creepy are much more likely
to be males than females (as are most clowns), that unpredictability
is an important component of creepiness and that unusual patterns
of eye contact and other nonverbal behaviours set off our creepiness
detectors big time.
or strange physical characteristics such as bulging eyes, a peculiar
smile or inordinately long fingers did not, in and of themselves,
cause us to perceive someone as creepy. But the presence of weird
physical traits can amplify any other creepy tendencies that the
person might be exhibiting, such as persistently steering conversations
toward peculiar sexual topics or failing to understand the policy
about bringing reptiles into the office.
we asked people to rate the creepiness of different occupations,
the one that rose to the top of the creep list was – you
guessed it – clowns.
were consistent with my theory that getting ‘creeped out’
is a response to the ambiguity of threat and that it is only when
we are confronted with uncertainty about threat that we get the
it would be considered rude and strange to run away in the middle
of a conversation with someone who is sending out a creepy vibe
but is actually harmless; at the same time, it could be perilous
to ignore your intuition and engage with that individual if he
is, in fact, a threat. The ambivalence leaves you frozen in place,
wallowing in discomfort.
reaction could be adaptive, something humans have evolved to feel,
with being ‘creeped out’ a way to maintain vigilance
during a situation that could be dangerous.
SET OFF OUR CREEP ALERT
of our study’s results, it is not at all surprising that
we find them to be creepy.
Nader is a Canadian psychologist who studies coulrophobia, the
irrational fear of clowns. Nader believes that clown phobias are
fueled by the fact that clowns wear makeup and disguises that
hide their true identities and feelings.
is perfectly consistent with my hypothesis that it is the inherent
ambiguity surrounding clowns that make them creepy. They seem
to be happy, but are they really? And they’re mischievous,
which puts people constantly on guard. People interacting with
a clown during one of his routines never know if they are about
to get a pie in the face or be the victim of some other humiliating
prank. The highly unusual physical characteristics of the clown
(the wig, the big red nose, the makeup, the odd clothing) only
magnify the uncertainty of what the clown might do next.
are certainly other types of people who creep us out (taxidermists
and undertakers made a good showing on the creepy occupation spectrum).
But they have their work cut out for them if they aspire to the
level of creepiness that we automatically attribute to clowns.
words, they have big shoes to fill.