This is an actual text message I received from a friend last week: "What if I get attacked by a clown on my walk home from the subway?"
My friend, like many people, has succumbed to the clown hysteria that’s been taking the media by storm for the past two months. It started in South Carolina, reports Time, when clown-like figures were found attempting to lure kids into the woods. Threatening clowns have since been spotted in dozens of communities across the United States—oftentimes threatening children and wielding knives—and these incidents have spurred copycats worldwide.
Bozo-based hysteria may be at an all-time high, but clowns have been creeping people out for many years. We spoke with two psychologists who—get this—have specifically studied the fear of clowns.
The main reason we're creeped out by clowns? We feel we can’t trust them, says Rami Nader, PhD, a psychologist and director of the North Shore Stress and Anxiety Clinic in North Vancouver, British Columbia. “They have these large, artificial, painted-on expressions, which you know don’t actually represent how that clown is feeling because nobody can be happy all the time and yet the clown has a big happy smiling face all the time,” Nader says. “In essence, you sort of know that it’s lying to you in terms of the presentation.”
Many people are also afraid of clown mannerisms, says Frank McAndrew, PhD, a professor of psychology at Knox College who specifically studies creepiness. “People are afraid of clowns because they are so mischievous and unpredictable, and unlike vampires and ghosts, they really exist and could possibly cause trouble for you,” he explains. Typical clown behavior—throwing pies, squirting people with water, cracking crude jokes—makes us uncomfortable and distrustful, two feelings that can cause fear and anxiety.
The portrayal of clowns in pop culture stokes our anxiety as well. If you saw Stephen King's It as a kid, for example, then you're more likely to see clowns a demonic figures. “You see a film with a creepy, evil clown, and it changes the way you perceive clowns in the future, or could potentially do that,” says Nader. “With this kind of clown hysteria going on, this is probably going to affect people’s view of clowns moving forward.”
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Luckily, most people’s clown fears aren’t debilitating, says Nader. “Unless you happen to be a circus performer who has to work a lot with clowns, for the most part we generally don’t have to interact with clowns in our society and it doesn’t cause any distress or interference in your life at all.” So even if you're stressed out right now by the creepy clown craze, when it dies down, you should start feeling normal again.