With clowns and clown attacks making headlines around the world, it’s no wonder more and more people are developing a fear of clowns.

But even before this last phenomenon, it is known that a good percentage of the population suffered from clown phobia, or ‘coulrophobia’.

In fact, around 2% of the population is believed to suffer from clown phobia, and the Facebook page ‘ihateclowns’ includes almost half a million likes.

Why are clowns so scary?

Perhaps the main reason clowns can look so scary is because the clown’s makeup makes it impossible to read genuine human emotion.

To feel safe, as sighted people we depend on visual cues, facial expressions especially help us to quickly assess a person’s character.

With the painted face of the clown we just can’t do that. The person hides behind the makeup, and if a person hides, we might think that they have something to hide, maybe even something that is not pleasant at all.

Threat behind the makeup

We could feel that there is something dark or sinister lurking behind the makeup, as was the case with the American mass murderer John Wayne Gacey, who in the 1970s, dressed as a clown named ‘Pogo, killed more than 35 young people. In fact, Gacey is said to have said that as a clown "you can get away with it". Of course he did not, as he was executed for his crimes.

The ‘threat behind the makeup’ is something the movies have captured. Heath Ledger’s version of ‘The Joker’ in the Batman movie, for example, was made up as a clown, and this made him seem even more threatening, more disturbing.

And of course there is an element of insanity in the clown’s antics, something unpredictable and out of control about them that can be really unsettling, something that perhaps disturbs our sense of “normalcy.”

The cultural factor

However, there seems to be a cultural factor in children’s response to clowns. Research from the University of Sheffield in the UK, for example, found that most children disliked and even feared images of clowns.

While Italian researchers found that children hospitalized for respiratory illnesses improved faster after playing with ‘therapeutic clowns’.

Whatever the reason people don’t like or fear clowns, the ‘clown attacks’ now hitting the news will certainly add to this, perhaps in the years to come.

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