The fear of clowns, or coulrophobia, is a widely recognised phenomenon across the globe. According to studies, this fear exists in many different cultures among both adults and children. Scientific American conducted a study and found that the fear of clowns stems from not being able to see their facial expressions due to their makeup.
The team developed a psychometric questionnaire to measure the incidence and severity of coulrophobia. An international sample of 987 individuals, ranging in age from 18 to 77, answered the ‘Fear of Clowns Questionnaire’. While five per cent of respondents stated they were “extremely afraid” of clowns, more than half of respondents (53.5 per cent) admitted to being at least somewhat afraid of them. It is interesting to note that this percentage of people reporting an extreme fear of clowns is slightly higher than the percentages reported for many other phobias, including those of animals (3.8 per cent), blood/injection/injuries (3.0 per cent), heights (2.8 per cent), still water or weather events (2.3 per cent), closed spaces (2.2 per cent) and flying (1.3 per cent).
Women are more terrified of clowns than men, according to the study. The cause remains unclear. It was also shown that coulrophobia declines with age, which is consistent with research on other phobias.
A follow-up questionnaire was given to the respondents who were somewhat afraid of the clowns. It further provided plausible explanations for the fear. “An eerie or unsettling feeling due to clowns’ makeup making them look not-quite-human. A similar response is sometimes seen with dolls or mannequins,” was listed as a top response.
Many also said that their “exaggerated facial features convey a direct sense of threat” and “clown makeup hides emotional signals and creates uncertainty.” Some people also noted that the colour of clown makeup reminds them of death, infection or blood injury, and evokes disgust or avoidance. A section of people said that clowns’ unpredictable behaviour made them uncomfortable and the “fear of clowns has been learned from family members.”
“Negative portrayals of clowns in popular culture” and “a frightening experience with a clown” were the other reasons mentioned in the research. However, the last reason received the lowest engagement.
Hidden emotional signals were the most significant factor, indicating that many people’s fear of clowns is due to their inability to observe their facial expressions owing to makeup. Since they cannot see their “true” faces, they are unable to comprehend their emotional intentions. Therefore, people are unsure if they are frowning or have furrowed brows, both of which would suggest anger. The study said that some humans get nervous around clowns because they can’t tell what they are thinking or what they could do next.
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