There’s a certain logic to most of our fears and phobias, no matter how irrational they might be. But clowns? Really?
We don’t usually respond to emails telling us about dubious surveys that exist only to promote some business or other – the sort of easy news that is the bread and butter of lesser news services and invariably skew facts, sometimes being referenced for years despite having been conducted using dubious methodology. So when we received a message about a ‘study’ into ‘America’s greatest fears’ that has been compiled by the highly scientific method of looking at where certain keywords land in Google Trends – a technique just short of ‘asking my mates’, you might think – our immediate instinct was to snort derisively and move on. And yet…
For all the questionable self-puffery of this ‘survey’ (and if you are actually interested, you can find the whole thing here), it is a reminder of some of our oddball terrors that – if you think about it for a moment – make no sense. Phobias about heights or flying or open water make sense, in as much as that all these things come with a sense of helplessness and death, however unlikely that might actually be. Fears of darkness, crowds or the outside also have a certain logic because they all contain (in theory) uncontrollable dangers, while a fear of blood is understandable because we generally only see blood in situations that remind us of our mortality. I can even understand the fear of certain animals, especially if those animals have previously ‘attacked’ someone – one bitten, twice shy as the saying goes. But here we start to get into the areas of irrationality and manufactured terror. Why are people who are never going to encounter one scared of sharks, for instance? I suppose we can put that down to Jaws and its imitators – that film (and the novel to a lesser extent) made the shark a figure of fear even for people who live inland and never go swimming in the ocean. For most people, the possibility of even being in the close presence of a shark, let alone being attacked by a man-eater, is so slim that it barely warrants mentioning. But people are afraid of them nevertheless.
Sharks, in fact, don’t make an appearance in this ‘study’ but bees do. Bees! I think by now we all know how vital bees are to the entire infrastructure of the Earth, yet people still have a pathological fear of them. Wasps, I get – wasps are the delinquent, worthless stepchild of the bee, after all – but why on earth should people be scared of bees? Similarly, spiders. I know spiders look a bit creepy, what with all those legs and their habit of appearing unannounced. But you are statistically unlikely to ever be bitten by a spider and even if you are, it will mostly be a minor irritation. Most encounters with spiders are not fatal – well, not for the human anyway; the innocent spider often doesn’t survive such encounters because of stupid paranoia.
Still, all this probably leads back to some sort of ancient survival instinct. I get it. Rationality can’t override that. Similarly, I can get the most hilarious entry in this list – ‘long words’, or – rather ironically and cruelly, you might think – ‘sesquipedalophobia’. Well done Iowa for having this as your number one! We can all chortle at a State that cowers in terror at the sight of multiple syllables but isn’t this just a very specific version of a much more common fear – the fear of failure? It seems that the fear of failure is really a fear of humiliation – it’s failure in the eyes of others, surely, or else why does it matter? No one wants to be seen as less successful or less intelligent than others – and so I do understand why long words, which are hard to understand and easy to mispronounce, might be intimidating. Intimidation is, after all, often the reason why many people use them in the first place – they show how much cleverer the person using them is than everyone else. Which, when you think about it, is a sort of fear in itself – the fear that at any point, you might be found out and exposed as a fraud, hiding your ignorance behind high-falutin’ faux intellectualism.
All this preamble leads up, inevitably, to the main point of this piece. The fear, phobia, paranoia – call it what you will – that seems to me to be the most irrational and manufactured of them all. I’m talking about coulrophobia – the fear of clowns. Everyone is scared of clowns these days – it’s so common that it seems less a phobia and more part of the general human condition. But why? Clowns, after all, are supposed to be fun. ‘Clowning around’ is to behave in a silly fashion, not to be absolutely terrifying. The whole idea of the clown is to make you laugh, not scream. Some of the classic children’s entertainers have been clowns, and these characters still provide light relief in the circus. How the hell did they become so nightmarish for so many?
We can lazily trace it back to Stephen King’s It and the 1990 TV version of the novel, which offered a genuinely creepy clown in the form of Tom Curry’s Pennywise. For a lot of people, this is ground zero for mass coulrophobia. But King didn’t pluck this out of the air – it was already out there as an idea, surely, just waiting to be expanded upon. I remember a paperback novel that my parents owned, the details of which are faded – I think it was by Ngaio Marsh or Agatha Christie, but research doesn’t bring up the image, so perhaps it was someone else – that featured a clown crying a tear of blood on the front cover. This freaked the fuck out of me as a kid. But – and here’s the point – it wasn’t because clowns per se were scary. It was because the tear of blood was so incongruous and unsettling – it had changed the very context of a clown. And that seemed to be the wider interpretation of the clown back then. There was a lot of culture exploring the clown as a tragic figure, an unhappy figure behind his make-up smile. Seriously, look at any old film set in a circus and the clown is almost guaranteed to be a sad, lonely character. How the hell did he transform into a sinister, knife-wielding maniac that is so ingrained in the public consciousness that it is an immediately recognisable trope?
Perhaps it was It that switched things up, at least as a tipping point. After all, as late as 1989, Krusty the Clown was still a comic figure when he made his Simpsons debut. Maybe King simply tapped into an unspoken fear, one slowly created through low-rent clown make-up on the characters who turned up at children’s parties and looked more monstrous than comical, the evolution of the Joker from cartoonish harlequin to deranged clown and the masked droogs of A Clockwork Orange. After all, Pennywise’s first appearance in It doesn’t seem odd and subversive – we already have an awareness that clowns, of course, are not to be trusted. King didn’t invent this fear, he just perfected it.
Whatever the reason and whatever the tipping point, it seems impossible for clowns to be seen as anything other than sinister now. The bizarre phenomenon of ‘street clowns’ that has spread around the world seems to confirm this. For those of you who might somehow be unfamiliar with this, it involves the sudden and unexplained appearance of clowns in public places, terrifying locals. While some of these clowns have been unquestionably crazy – carrying knives, chasing people and jumping on cars- while others are pranksters who jump out of bushes to scare passersby, most simply seem to walk around doing nothing. This is enough for many people – police forces in Britain have suggested that the clowns may be in breach of the Public Order Act of 1986, a typically wide-ranging law that apparently covers how you dress. But the mere fact that so many people have been terrified by these mysterious pranksters goes to show how widespread coulrophobia has become. Back in 2016, Stephen King commented that it was “time to cool the clown hysteria” – and he wasn’t talking to the cosplayers. Fear of clowns seems to be a culturally manufactured hysteria rather than a genuine phobia – a fear that exists because we have been told, continually, that clowns are scary. There will be some people who genuinely have coulrophobia, but there will be many more just jumping on the bandwagon because very few people seem to have a phobia for following the herd. Imagine if we did this for any other phobia – encouraging rather than curing it? And imagine how awful it must be for actual clowns, especially old-school performers who have watched their profession literally demonised? It’s really no laughing matter.
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