Do You Fear Clowns?

The History of Coulrophobia

Close-Up Of Clown Face
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Coulrophobia, or fear of clowns, seems to be relatively common.

A January 2008 report from BBC News suggests that clown phobia may be more ingrained than was previously assumed.

That article cites a recent study conducted by University of Sheffield researchers who polled children in several British hospitals about an upcoming hospital redesign. According to the news story, all 250 children (age 4 to 16) expressed a fear or dislike of clowns.

The full results of the study have not yet been published.

Widespread Fear of Clowns

Why are we, as a society, collectively afraid of clowns? In a 2004 review article for Trinity University, Joseph Durwin postulates that there are two commonly accepted schools of thought. One is that the fear is based on a negative personal experience with a clown at a young age. The second theory is that mass media has created a hype surrounding evil clowns such that even children who are not personally exposed to clowns are trained to dislike or fear them. However, neither of these theories is entirely satisfactory.

History of the Clown

Durwin continues into an impressive history of the clown, dating back to the jester or fool of ancient times. In those days, the clown was given permission and even expected, to represent the deviant side of human nature, from openly defying the sexual norms of the day to mocking the gods.

As time went on, the jester morphed into the trickster, a more sinister figure with intentions that were less than honorable.

The modern circus clown is an outgrowth of the tramp clowns of the Depression era. Tramp clowns were largely members of the "unsavory" underclass who entertained the most privileged with a caricatured look at their daily existence.

Although most tramp clowns were harmless, a seedy underbelly did exist among the clown circuit. 

By the 1980s, clown phobia had reached a peak. Rumors of ritual abuse of children were rampant, and clowns figured heavily into many of the stories. Spontaneous reports of clown harassment began pouring in from children nationwide. Even urban legends began to focus on killer clowns lying in wait for hapless babysitters. Soon Stephen King tapped into the national consciousness with the definitive killer clown work of fiction, "It."

Killer Clowns and Circus Clowns

In the decades that followed, killer clowns have become a part of our human myths. At Halloween events, killer clowns are often part of the festivities. Yet the killer clown's innocent cousin, the circus clown, continues to delight and amaze the young and the young at heart.

How can we justify this seemingly incompatible coexistence? A possible explanation can be found by looking to the past. Throughout history, clowns have represented the side of us that is not acceptable to society. That side is formed from our most primal urges and is not always neat or pretty. Perhaps the clown both attracts and repels us because he or she holds up a mirror to our inner selves.

Until more research is performed, the causes of clown phobia will remain firmly in the realm of speculation. Fortunately, it is possible for mental health professionals to treat clown phobia, as any other phobia, without learning the precise reasons for its development.


Durwin, J. Coulrophobia and the Trickster. Trickster's Way. 2004. 3:1. April 24, 2008.

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