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#sowhoknew: Hate clowns? Psychologists finally explain why

Coulrophobia is the fear of clowns. I have it. Bad. Whether it be Pennywise from Stephen King’s ‘It’, Billy from ‘Saw’ or the Clown Doll from ‘Poltergeist’ these red nosed nemeses scare the holy bejeezus out of me. So what is about these supposedly funny, but more like freaky, face painted jesters that terrifies us so much? So with Halloween almost upon us psychologists say they finally have the answer…

Author of the book Bad Clowns, Benjamin Radford, has traced the evolution of clowns as objects of amusement into something far more sinister and menacing. According to Radford the pivot point for this change in perception occurred when infamous serial killer John Wayne Gacy was finally caught and his sinister past revealed. It transpired that during the 1970’s, Gacy dressed up as Pogo the Clown to entertain children at their birthday parties. When the police uncovered that he had murdered and buried at least 33 people in the crawl space of his Chicago home he was immediately arrested and his first comment to the police was,”You know… clowns can get away with murder.”

Et voila, the connection was made in peoples’ minds. Clowns and psychopaths were one and the same.

It’s maybe not surprising then that Hollywood latched onto to the same vibe in the 1980’s with a slew of movies about malevolent clowns. Beyond the aforementioned ‘It’ and ‘Poltergeist’ there was also plenty of B-movie popcorn fodder with the likes of ‘Killer Klowns from Outer Space’ and ‘Clownhouse’ with various interpretations of rancorous clowns committing all manner of mischief.

Psychologists acknowledge that the portrayal of clowns since the 80’s as psychotic murderers hell bent on your annihilation has exacerbated the negative perceptions of a whole new generation who have probably never seen a positive, playful image of a traditional carnival clown. Dr Martin Anthony, who is professor of Psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto explains, “We develop fears from what we read and see in the media. There’s certainly lots of examples of nasty clowns in movies that potentially puts feet on that kind of fear.”

Dr. Brenda Wiederhold, is a world renowned psychologist specialising in phobias and she concurs that the seeds are sown at a very young age, “It starts normally in children about the age of two, when they get anxiety about being around strangers, too. At that age, children’s minds are still developing, there’s a little bit of a blend and they’re not always able to separate fantasy from reality.”

So will this negative image of the clown prevail or will we see a return to days when they were merely regarded as a loveable figure of fun, slipping on an imaginary banana skin and throwing mock buckets of water at each other? Well, just last October there were the lurid ‘Clownageddon’ news stories of various people in the US and UK dressing up as clowns to terrify people around Halloween. Couple that with the recent remake of ‘It’ and a terrifying new interpretation of Pennywise, I can’t see the tarnished image of the clown changing any time soon.

So what do you think? Are the psychologists right about our depiction of clowns and is it unlikely that we will ever revert to our previous opinions of them? Or do you think that their reputation can be rehabilitated with some more positive associations? As ever, I am keen to hear your thoughts.

Steve Blakeman

Steve Blakeman is the Managing Director - Global Accounts, OMD Europe. Previously, he was the CEO, Asia Pacific – OMD. Prior to that, he was Global Chief Integration Strategy Officer (Asia Pacific) for IPG Mediabrands (Initiative & Universal McCann). He has also had stints as worked as Managing Partner at Omnicom Media Group owned media agency, PHD where he successfully launched their second office in the UK. He began his career at JWT and has over two decades of experience in advertising, media and marketing communications.