A new study investigating origins of coulrophobia (or fear of clowns) found that uncertainty of harmful intent, media influences, and unpredictability of behavior play are key drivers of this fear. Various features of clowns’ appearance also produce a negative experience and a sense of direct threat. The study was published in Frontiers in Psychology.
Clowns are entertainers dressed in traditional clown costumes and wearing exaggerated makeup. They have been integral parts of entertainment events, particularly circus shows and children’s parties for centuries. They are typically depicted as friendly figures of fun and comedy. However, clowns’ performances are also characterized by erratic behavior that can as easily upset as entertain. For example, coaxing a shy child to be a part of a magic trick or spraying a surprise jet of water at the audience may be quite upsetting.
Clowns are often depicted in a different way. They can be presented as tricksters, characters that can be both benevolent or malign at a whim. The movie character “the Joker” is an example of a clown presented as a malignant entity. The same is the case with the modern trope of “killer clowns”. Studies have shown that these malignant representations of clowns started around the end of the 19th century.
Connected to this, a real-life phenomenon of coulrophobia or fear of clowns emerged. Studies indicate that it is present in between 1.5% and 17% of adults, although it is not clinically recognized as a specific disorder. Two studies on medical staff and parents whose children were hospitalized reported fear of medical clowns in between 18% and 46% of participants in those studies.
Study author Philip John Tyson and his colleagues wanted to explore the origins of fear of clowns in a group of people who reported such fear. They also wanted to test a new scale for assessing coulrophobia and examine gender and age differences in the level of this fear.
Participants were 528 individuals, mostly from the United Kingdom, who reported having a fear of clowns to a certain degree. 85% of participants were female. Average age of participants was 28.
Participants completed the Origin of Fear of Clowns Questionnaire (OFCQ) created by study authors. This questionnaire assesses experiences of two aspects of clowns’ physical appearance that author call uncanny valley (“I think clowns look disturbing”) and hidden emotional signals (“I cannot read a clown’s facial expression”).
It also assess their unpredictability (“I worry a clown will do something unexpected”), two aspects experience related to clowns – experiences modelled from friends and family (“I have a significant family member or close friend who is afraid of clowns”) and those based on portrayals in the media (“I have seen scary scenes in films involving clowns”) – and the general physiological reactivity to clowns i.e., frightening experiences (“I feel my heart racing when I see a clown”).
Results showed participants reported hidden emotional signals and negative media portrayals as contributing the most to the fear of clowns. Learning and experience related to clowns and frightening experience were the least reported as contributing to this fear.
“Perhaps surprisingly, the lowest level of agreement was for questions relating to having had a Frightening Experience in the presence of a clown; indicating that simple, direct conditioning alone is an insufficient explanation of clown fear in the majority of individuals,” the reserchers said.
Differences between males and females on the questionnaire were marginal and disappeared when additional statistical controls were introduced into the analysis. Older participants reported a bit higher worry about hidden emotional signals of clowns than younger participants.
“This study set out to investigate the origins of coulrophobia, and for this purpose, we constructed the Origins of Fear of Clowns Questionnaire (OFCQ) to measure the extent to which a range of hypothetical causal candidates contribute to clown fear,” the study authors concluded.
“Results from this instrument found broad support for all theorized aetiological factors to varying degrees. Hidden Emotional Signals, Negative Media Portrayals, Unpredictable Behavior and the Uncanny Valley Effect attracted the highest ratings of agreement in respective rank order. However, what is unclear at this stage is the level of fear associated with each origin category and this is the focus of continued research.”
The study shed light on a rarely investigated phenomenon – the fear of clowns. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, most of the participants were female. Results on males might not be the same. Additionally, it remained unknown how pronounced the fear of clowns in the participants actually is and whether any of them would meet the diagnostic criteria for a phobia related to clowns.
The study, “Fear of clowns: An investigation into the aetiology of coulrophobia”, was authored by Philip John Tyson, Shakiela K. Davies, Sophie Scorey and William James Greville.