Clowns used to be images of happiness, jovial reminders of childhood, but it seems these days that more often than not they strike fear in people — young and old. Where did this coulrophobia, or phobia of clowns, come from?
“Clown phobias are kind of weird … really there’s not literature on it from before the 1980s, which ironically came about the same time as Stephen King’s It and John Wayne Gacy [the “Killer Clown,” a serial killer who volunteered as Pogo the Clown in his community],” explains Lee Lewis, a therapist. “It’s really a media-influenced phobia.”
Lewis mentioned an animatronics study at one of the Ivy League schools that looked at how people responded to different machines or characters with varying lifelike appearances. “If it is super lifelike, people accommodate to it very well, like Data on Star Trek. Also the less human-like, the less scared they are of it. Like Johnny Five from Short Circuit, no one’s scared of Johnny Five,” Lee explains. “There’s this level where something looks kind of like a human but not human enough; people are repulsed by it. The Polar Express, that type of animation, really freaked a lot of people out. People couldn’t see that movie because the people in it were really lifelike, but not lifelike enough to pass muster.” Clowns would fall into this same category.
There’s also something paradoxical about clowns, especially circus clowns with their painted faces and oversized smiles, but then they’re always doing something they shouldn’t be. The clowns hit and punch one another, kick the other clowns, but with big smiles on their faces. It can be confusing to children who are told that those actions are bad, but the clowns smile as they do those bad behaviors, Lee notes.
He adds that phobias by definition are such irrational fears that they affect the day-to-day lives of their sufferers. However, in most daily lives, people aren’t going to unexpectedly run into a clown. “Unless you work at Ringling Brothers or put yourself in that situation, a phobia of clowns very rarely exists. What I would say to people honestly if they said to me they were really scared of clowns is, ‘Why don’t you save yourself some money and not pay me and just avoid clowns?'” says Lewis.
That being said, Lewis would treat coulrophobia using either desensitization or flooding. But be warned, both involve a lot of clowns.
Desensitization is the longer of the two processes, involving eight to 12 sessions that would slowly integrate clowns into the therapy. “First session you would talk about clowns, what they wear, look like, then you talk them off the edge,” Lee says. “Next week, there’d be the little red honking nose, have them squeeze it, maybe wear it, or maybe as a therapist you would wear the red honking nose. At the end, you’d be like, ‘Hey, we just had a session about a red honking nose.’ The last session have a birthday party with a clown or have the clown come to the office — have them sit though a whole session with the clown — and they’d be cured. The great thing about phobias is that they can be cured.”
The flooding method is much quicker with only one session, one intense session. “You might rent a mini car and shove five clowns in there and shove the person in there until they stop freaking out. Fight or flight,” says Lewis. “[Until you think] ‘I’m sitting in a car with five clowns, and they aren’t trying to slit my throat and not trying to drink my blood.”
With the Best Of party happening tonight, it looks like flooding may be your best bet to cure your coulrophobia, but we can’t promise that you won’t transfer some fear onto mini cars.