There’s a word for the excessive fear of clowns: Coulrophobia.
In 2008, a widely reported University of Sheffield, England, survey of 250 children between the ages of four and 16 found that most of the children disliked and even feared images of clowns.
Clowns, as pranksters, jesters, jokers, harlequins, and mythologized tricksters have been around for ages. They appear in most cultures—Pygmy clowns made Egyptian pharaohs laugh in 2500 BCE; Hopi Native Americans had a tradition of clown-like characters who interrupted serious dance rituals with ludicrous antics.
Andrew McConnell Stott is the author of several articles on scary clowns and comedy, as well as The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, a much-lauded 2009 biography of the famous comic pantomime player on the Regency London stage.
Grimaldi’s real life was anything but comedy — he’d grown up with a tyrant of a stage father; he was prone to bouts of depression; his first wife died during childbirth; his son was an alcoholic clown who’d drank himself to death by age 31; and Grimaldi’s physical gyrations, the leaps and tumbles and violent slapstick that had made him famous, left him in constant pain and prematurely disabled.
As Grimaldi himself joked, “I am GRIM ALL DAY, but I make you laugh at night”.
After Grimaldi died penniless and an alcoholic in 1837, Dickens was charged with editing Grimaldi’s memoirs. Unsurprisingly, Dickens’ version of Grimadli’s life was, well, Dickensian. For every laugh he wrought from his audiences, Grimaldi suffered commensurate pain.
Stott credits Dickens with watering the seeds in popular imagination of the scary clown say[ing] Dickens invented the scary clown by creating a figure who is literally destroying himself to make his audiences laugh.
Personally, I think this explanation is bullshit.
The real reasons clowns are scary is because they tap into an instinctive reaction to the pre-historical era when trans-dimensional aliens in kaleidoscopic primary colors enslaved and murdered human communities scattered around the world before finally being driven off in a desperate attack on the clown mothership.
Image of Grimaldi from Wikimedia Commons.
Via Smithsonian.com for the full terrifying tale.