Clowns have been around for ages. Traditional clowns were comic relief in the circus after the thrills and chills of daring circus acts involving acrobatic feats. Even though most clowns are trying to be silly and sweet, many children do not like them. Young children have a fear of strangers, and when they encounter a clown at a birthday party, or even the circus, they can react with fear. Some people develop an extreme fear of clowns, referred to as Coulrophobia, which causes a person to experience mental and physical stress reactions and limits functioning due to anxiety; although this term has not been popular due to the infrequency of actual clown encounters. Interestingly, the classic, sweet, funny clown has been found to have a therapeutic effect on sick children in the hospital, decreasing a child's pre-operative anxiety and decreasing the length of respiratory illness. Sadly, there are fewer professional clowns seen these days because clowns have gone out of fashion.
So why are some teenagers and adults (only 2% of the adult population) so afraid of clowns? If a parent experiences a specific fear of clowns, this often gets conveyed to a child or teenager, who is then more likely to become afraid. Modern horror movies have portrayed clowns as bad or evil and are not considered sweet or funny at all. In addition, pranks are currently being played by mischievous people dressed in clown costumes. Because one is unable to read a clown's emotions due to their heavy face paint, their display of manic-like behaviors can be terrifying to some, and this increases the idea that clowns are to be feared. In addition, clown fear is being exacerbated by social media. People develop fears by what they read and see in the media, like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, where information goes `viral,' and rumors of murderous clowns and `clown sightings' spread quickly.
As Halloween is fast approaching, you need to have your wits about you to enjoy the annual ritual of Trick-or-Treating. If you encounter a clown along the way, do not be intimidated or show fear, especially toward the sweet, nice looking clowns. Use rational thinking: "Clowns are typically good, sweet, soothing figures who make people laugh and feel happy." Consider the source of the viral message on social media, and make sure you note the source providing information about a `clown sighting'. Think logically and rationally before reacting to vague information, and do not let it become an unrealistic fear. If you continue to experience anxiety, then you should consider further consultation with a psychologist in order to better assist with minimizing your fears. Happy Halloween!
Eve F. Whitmore, Ph.D.
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