Health & Wellness

Do clowns creep you out?

When did clowns stop being funny? It was long before creepy clowns menaced kids in Greenville, S.C. last fall. Maybe even before Stephen King turned a circus favorite into a murderous supernatural monster thirty years ago.

Now Pennywise, the pure evil character from "It" is in theaters, stirring up all our irrational clown phobia. Yes, fear of clowns is so pervasive, it's become harder for some real-life clowns — the ones with the big bow ties and funny makeup who only want to make us laugh — to earn a living.

Brooke Palmer/Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock / AP
In the movie "It," the clown Pennywise is pure evil. is Are you scared right now?

Those with intense clown phobia can experience real feelings common to anyone experiencing panic or anxiety: sweating, nausea, feelings of dread, fast heartbeat, crying or screaming.

“Individuals respond to something they fear with a physiological fear response,” Marla Deibler, founder and executive director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia. said via email. “Because someone perceives something as dangerous or threatening, their nervous system responds by alerting their mind and body to this perceived threat.”

But for those who simply find clowns disturbing, what is it about them that makes them so darn creepy?

It’s a combination of things.

“They’re hiding their natural face,” said Frank Farley, a psychology professor at Temple University. “It can raise suspicion or fears. Are we in danger? Should we be concerned to be in the presence of the individual?”

Their dramatic mouths and eyes also cause people to feel wary.

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Creepy clown sightings spread, and authorities aren't laughing

Play Video - 2:35

Creepy clown sightings spread, and authorities aren't laughing

Play Video - 2:35

Familiar — and unfamiliar

“They are still recognizable — two eyes, a nose, a mouth, for example, but these features are exaggerated,” said said Dr. Steven Schlozman, associate director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School via email. “That's actually the basis for a lot of fear — the uncanny moment, where things look both familiar and unfamiliar.”

We’re often suspicious of people who seem too happy, and clowns have fake smiles plastered on their faces.

“If someone smiles at you all the time, you don’t trust them,” said David L. Kupfer, a clinical psychologist in Falls Church, Virginia. “I wonder when I see a clown face what is behind that face. I probably suspect that there is something not so smiley or something potentially harmful behind that happy, unrealistically happy, face.”

While zombies and vampires remain safely in fiction, clowns actually exist. What’s more, a real life clown, John Wayne Gacy, committed horrific murders, proving a monster could be hiding behind that makeup.

“He allegedly said to police ‘A clown can get away with anything.’ It reinforces that fear people have,” said Kupfer.

Also, clowns often fill evil roles in movies.

“(The movie) 'It' had the archetype of an evil clown ... You have a grotesquely dressed clown who looks happy and is evil inside,” said Kupfer. "This is what clowns are all about."

This updated story was originally published in September, 2016

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