In the first of a new regular feature, we take a look at modern phobias that infiltrate our modern lives. Fears can be rational or irrational, but if someone suffers from one, they can be paralysed by it to the point that it can affect their adult existence. In extreme cases, it can stop people leaving their home, having a job, a relationship or can even lead to suicide.
For this first feature, we take a look at coulrophobia – The Fear of Clowns – and see how it ties into horror specifically.
Hey kids, who wants to pay a visit to the circus? There’ll be strongmen, trapeze artists, the ringmaster and those purveyors of entertainment comedy, the clowns!
That’s how it used to be. The clown was a figure of amusement, a character that stood for silly pranks, pie throwing and seeing how many of them they could fit into a mini – that would promptly fall apart as soon as they’d shut the door. These days, however, the figure of a clown stands for an irrational fear. It’s not that we’re belittling coulrophobia, just that clowns are on the whole people who add a bit of make-up and try to entertain us with pratfalls and spinning bowties.
So how did these entertainers of children become a modern representation of fear?
Well, although we can pretty much trace the recorded beginning of coulrophobia back to the 1986 release of Stephen King’s IT (more on that in a moment), the idea of a clown being scary can be tracked back a lot earlier than that. During the silent movie era (yes, that far!), Lon Chaney Snr spotted an eerie potential for the mirth to turn into something much more sinister, stating that “There is nothing laughable about a clown in the moonlight.” Think about that for a moment and then watch this video.
It’s unknown exactly how many people suffer from coulrophobia, with figures varying greatly depending on where you look, plus some adults are embarrassed to admit to it. Plus, like most phobias, there are undoubtedly degrees and levels of the fear that cause some victims to give in to their fight or flight mental state at the mere sight of a clown, whereas others would have to be enduring the most extreme circumstances for their fear to surface.
The idea of a clown is represented by a horror trope that is so steeped in history within our favourite genre that it surely comes as little surprise as to why they are considered scary. Clowns wear masks. Sure, they’re not gruesome latex and plastic inventions a la Hollywood monster icons, but the make-up used does hide the visage of the actor, and the resultant appearance is only limited by the imagination of the person applying it. Ramsey Campbell, who has used clowns in his novels The Other Side and The Grin of the Dark, has gone on record to say that the anxiety that clowns create is because “It is the fear of the mask, the fact that it doesn’t change and is relentlessly comical.”
In a perfect example that ties in real life and this phobia, we have the case of John Wayne Gacy, who was an American serial killer who sexually assaulted 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978. He buried the majority of the bodies in the crawlspace of his house, discarding the remainder elsewhere on his property or into the local river. He was sentenced to death when the authorities finally caught up with him and was executed in 1994, aged 54. What has this got to do with clowns, we hear you ask. Well, Mr Gacy used to appear at fundraising events, parades and children’s parties dressed as a character that he had created – Pogo the Clown.
A serial killer who killed young males whilst also entertaining scores more as a clown, you can’t get a better example of duality or a creepier backstory for a horror character if you tried, and this guy was real. Also, in a point that goes back to the issue of the face painting, most clowns make their ‘smiles’ rounded at the edges, whereas Gacy ensured that the edges of his fake mouth were always sharply pointed (see the photo at the front of this article).
However, if you ask anyone who actually suffers from coulrophobia what caused them to be scared of clowns, we can guarantee that the majority will blame Tim Curry. Curry filled the oversized shoes of Pennywise, the form of a dancing clown that an inter-dimensional predatory life-form takes to exploit the fears of its intended prey. Pennywise is both humorous and petrifying at the same time, whether he is stalking kids, talking to them from storm drains – telling them that “everything floats down here” – or haunting the protagonists as they return to their childhood town as adults to try and defeat him.
The idea that this could have been the catalyst for so many people to suffer from this fear is not a presumption, you only have to ask people and read their comments all over the internet to see that many blame King for their phobia. King’s story is a great example of his horror work, utilising childhood trauma and the power of memory that can be seen in so much of his work and it even won the British Fantasy Award in 1987.
Here’s an interesting interview with King by Conan O’Brien about clowns, and a run in with Ronald McDonald:
The biggest reason for coulrophobia in children is said to be a fear of the unknown or unrecognised – some kids are scared of Santa after all, but perhaps they’ve been naughty – but why fully grown adults still suffer is somewhat of a mystery. It has to be because of the masked face situation and a lack of trust in those we don’t know.
Here’s an extreme example of an adult who suffers from coulrophobia:
There are, of course, plenty of other examples of clowns being used elsewhere in horror, but most of the time they are a gimmick or cheap scare – for example, films like Killjoy, Killer Klowns From Outer Space and even Poltergeist. Captain Spaulding from House of 1,000 Corpses, played by Sid Haig, is a good example of someone dressed as a clown who is not who he appears to be. As a result of all of these, among many, many others, evil clowns have become part of popular zeitgeist, and are equally lampooned as feared – see the evil Krusty doll in The Simpsons as a perfect case in point.
As most clowns are unlike John Wayne Gacy, coulrophobia is considered to be an irrational fear, but one that can turn sufferers into a catatonic state if the circumstances are bad enough. So, sleep tight and try to ignore that clown doll in the corner of your room. After all, it didn’t really just move.