Health & Wellness

Do clowns creep you out? Experts explain why clowns seem so disturbing

What's going on with the creepy copycat clown hysteria?

Few things seem to strike terror in some of us like clowns.

People shudder when they see the new image of Pennywise from the “It” reboot. Millions collectively cringed when hearing about a clown allegedly luring children to the woods in Greenville, South Carolina.

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Now the worrisome clowns have invaded North Carolina. Parents are on edge after reports of a man in a clown costume stalking the area near Greensboro, according to the Washington Post.

“Clowns in the woods? Woods, to some, are nice and clowns, to some, are nice. But clowns and woods together? They don’t match, and that triggers a warning,” 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.

This isn't the first time clowns have stalked a town. In the past, creepy clowns have invaded cities in California, France, and England.

While clown phobia, also known as coulrophobia, can affect as many as 12 percent of American adults, people suffering from it are rarer than those who just loathe clowns, said Marla Deibler, founder and executive director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia.

Those with the phobia experience real feelings common to anyone experiencing panic or anxiety.

“Individuals respond to something they fear with a physiological fear response,” she 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.”

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

Experts say 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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“They are still recognizable — two eyes, a nose, a mouth, for example, but these features are exaggerated,” said Schlozman. “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.

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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."