Go ahead, admit it. You're scared to death of clowns. You're definitely not alone in this fear, and while we horror fans are totally familiar with all of the evil personifications of clowns in movies, comics, stories and artwork, some of us are still wondering why a traditional figure of fun, humor and entertainment is now more commonly considered one of the scariest damn things ever to walk the earth.
While the world of clinical psychology has not yet recognized the fear of clowns as an official condition, it does have a scientific name: “Coulrophobia.” An amazing new essay in Smithsonian Magazine examines this phobia in depth (with lots of nightmare-inducing photos, of course), and attempts to trace its origins, as well as speculating on exactly when in history clowns suddenly went from happy to horrifying.
The thesis, which includes input from several academic authorities, ventures back through recorded history for ancient tales of court jesters and similar entertainers from every part of the world, including popular clowns like Joseph Grimaldi (whose memoir was written by Charles Dickens), the opera character Pagliacci, sad clown icon Emmett Kelly, and TV clowns like Bozo and Ronald McDonald. Their inquiries led to the theory that even the most playful clowns have had a darker side... and point out serial killer John Wayne Gacy, whose party-clown persona masked a homicidal secret, as one of the key moments when a clown's evil side crossed over into grim reality.
Among their research, they've found workshops designed to help people overcome their clown fears, and recount an incident in Florida where a clown-themed art exhibit was desecrated by unknown vandals with an apparent vendetta against the red-nosed, floppy-shoed monstrosities. They also cite surveys which reveal the majority of modern-day children find clowns to be either totally scary... or just plain annoying. Of course, they also examine the influence of clowns on modern horror movies – from Poltergeist's evil doll to the demonic Pennywise in Stephen King's IT, or more comic monsters like Killer Klowns from Outer Space.
According to studies cited in the article, most children outgrow their fear of clowns, while up to two percent of adults never overcome it (we think that number is actually a lot higher), and they conclude that the scary clown trend is probably not going away anytime soon... but you already knew that, didn't you?