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Send In the Clowns

Our Collective Fascination and Fear of Big Top Tricksters
by Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC

Pennywise.

The name conjures a certain image of how we see clowns in our modern age. In his tale, “It,” Stephen King introduced us to a very dark world in the shape of Pennywise and the public’s perception of clowns has never quite been the same.

Coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns (of course psychology/psychiatry birthed a label for it), appears to be more common than we once thought.

A BBC News article in 2008 article cited a study conducted by the University of Sheffield. Researchers there polled children in several British hospitals about redesigns to the décor within the pediatric units. According to the story, all 250 children expressed a fear or strong dislike of clowns.

The full results of the study were apparently never published…Cue the screeching violin music…

More recently, fear gripped certain regions of the country when sinister looking clowns began making random appearances near playgrounds, secluded wooded areas, and old dark roads, just where you would expect to find them or vice-versa, right? Creepy and, in most cases, not very funny.

In a 2004 article for Trinity University, researcher Joseph Durwin explained two theories regarding our fear of this otherwise innocuous subject. He stated that the fear we experience when exposed to tricksters with names like Bozo, Slappy or Chuckles could possibly be based on a negative personal experience with a clown at a young age. The second theory is that television and film has produced a certain fear of clowns and clown existence. That is, even children who are not personally exposed to clowns are taught to fear them.

Court Jesters were the original clowns, often rude, often pushing the limits of good taste in a world that had little to laugh about. Jesters eventually morphed into the Trickster, and the modern circus clown is the result of the “tramp” or “hobo” clowns of Depression era America. Clowns during this time shed light onto the seedy underside of clown life. They were not “evil” per say, but were seen as “lower class,” “poor souls” and reflected a slightly unpleasant slice of American life in the 1930s. Later, and in the real world, we see the clown emerging with its most disturbed, perverted and horrific persona in the evil shape of serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

To take on the kind of popular mythos that evil clowns have enjoyed over the past several decades then perhaps there  is something more afoot than a passing, albeit morbid fascination. Could it be argued that the fear of clowns is much more deep rooted in our psyches than once thought? Are they the manifestation of a shadow side within each of us? A morbid reflection of all the thoughts and things we keep in the dark, and for good reason?  Is there something relatable for all of us beyond the creepiness, the gore, and the malevolent intent?  A clown, after all, is a just clown. By definition it is “someone who performs in a circus, who wears funny clothes and makeup, and who tries to make people laugh. Someone who often does funny things to make people laugh.”

So, what happened?  Perhaps the answer to that lies deep in our unexplored fears.

To be continued… Part 1 of a 5-week series on eTalkTherapy’s psychology of fear.

Sources:
Durwin, J. Coulrophobia and the Trickster, Trinity University. 2004.
Merriam Webster Dictionary, 2016.