Are you Scared of Clowns?

Does a painted face, a cheery smile and an outrageous costume make you squirm? Well, there’s a perfectly scientific reason for your discomfort.

The recent release of Stephen King’s “IT” movie adaption has inspired a number of “copy-clowns” in Australia and the UK. Grown men and women dress up as villainous clowns, lurking silently in parks or peering through windows, leaping unexpectedly out of bushes to scare bystanders. And it’s enough to scare even the most hardened horror movie fan.

But what makes Clowns so scary?

For one, we instinctively as a society look at the face first to help us read the other person. We cannot do that with a clown. Its permanently fixed smile hinders us from knowing the clown’s real emotion. Dr Richard Talbort a senior lecturer at the University of Stanford explains to BBC:

There's a technical confusion. There's a painted face which stays static but the facial muscles are still moving underneath, so our brains can't quite make sense of it

It’s based on a principle coined by Sigmund Freud known as the “uncanny.” The idea that seeing something that is recognisable, in this instance a clown face,  which is similar to a regular face but something is not quite right and it leaves the viewer feeling uneasy and uncomfortable.

This sensation is why many horror films have depicted the villain as the clown, from Stephen King’s It, to Amusement and Killer Klown From Outer Space.

Clowns are unsettling to say the very least, but for some, this fear becomes a full-blown phobia.

It’s called coulrophobia.

Clowns and their permanent facial expression, fixed between a state of laughing and crying creates a sense of chaos and a feeling of hysteria in the eye of the beholder.. Dr Talbot explains:

"They dress like a brightly-coloured child, inviting us to look at them but there's menace,"

"There's a fear of betraying your emotions. When we're laughing, we're out of control, and it's a fine line between laughing, crying and screaming.

"It's about being out of control. Clowns can trigger the very emotions we're trying to contain, in order for us to conform to being understood as sensible and serious beings."

The lesson to learn here: never trust a clown, because who knows what they’re thinking.

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