New research reveals why people are afraid of clowns

Philip John Tyson, an Associate Professor of psychology at the University of South Wales, recently published an article about the fear of clowns, with colleagues Shakiela Davies, Sophie Scorey, and William James Greville.

The research that resulted in the article, titled "Fear of clowns: An investigation into the aetiology of coulrophobia," published in Frontiers of Psychology, sought to understand why some people—about five percent of Americans, according to a recent survey—are afraid of clowns. Tyson and his team found more than 500 people who are afraid of clowns and asked them a series of questions about their fears. The Washington Post provides an overview of the findings:

One of the most surprising findings is that for many people, having a "scary personal experience with a clown wasn't a main contributor to the fear," Tyson said. Instead, people said they were creeped out by clowns because:

You can never really know what a clown is thinking. It can be difficult to know what's really going on in the mind of a clown with a painted on smile or frown. "There's something about not being able to read facial expressions," Tyson said. "And the fact that there might be something hidden and dangerous, there might be harmful intent behind the makeup."

Clowns are unpredictable. Clowns make some people laugh, but they often behave in unpredictable and startling ways that normal people never would (such as squirting water from a flower or honking a horn). People who are scared of spiders say something similar, worrying the spider will jump on them unexpectedly, Tyson said.

A clown's exaggerated features are disturbing. The big red nose, the egg head, the puffs of neon-colored hair. People seem to be scared of beings that look nearly human but not exactly, in the same way some people find baby dolls, aliens orrobots disturbing.

Movie clowns are terrifying. Many of those surveyed also said their fear is due, in part, to movies starring scary clowns, such as Joaquin Phoenix in "Joker" or Pennywise, the demonic clown in Stephen King's "It."

Here's the abstract from the study:

Introduction: Fear of clowns or coulrophobia is a little understood phenomenon despite studies indicating that it has a high prevalence in the general population. There have been no previous investigations into the aetiology of this fear, although several plausible hypotheses from the wider literature can be generated; the fear stems from media portrayals of scary clowns, from the unusual physical appearance or the unpredictable behaviour displayed, or it derives from an unpleasant personal experience.

Methods: The current study reviews the literature in this area and also pilots a new questionnaire (Origin of Fear of Clowns Questionnaire; OFCQ) to explore the causes of the fear of clowns in a sample of 528 participants who reported such a fear.

Results: Our findings suggest that uncertainty of harmful intent, media influences and unpredictability of behaviour play an important role in the origins of coulrophobia. There are also multiple features of clown appearance which produce a negative experiential state and a sense of a direct threat.

Discussion: We conclude that the origins of clown fear are multi-factorial and primarily relate to aspects of their facial appearance, their behaviour, and how they have been portrayed in the media. Surprisingly, fear derived from personal experience was not one of our main findings. Further research is focused on looking at associations between the level of fear and each aetiological category.

Read more about the study here.