The Psychology Behind Why Clowns Creep Us Out

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TheFor the past several months, creepy jesters have been terrorizing America, with sightings of actual jesters in at least 10 different states.

These fiendish jesters have reportedly tried to lure women and children into the timbers, chased people with knives and machetes, and screamed at people from automobiles. Theyve been spotted hanging out in graveyards and they have been caught in the headlights of cars as they appear alongside desolate country roads in the dead of night.

This isnt the first time there has been a wave of clown sightings in the United States. After eerily similar events occurred in the Boston area in the 1980 s, Loren Coleman, a cryptozoologist who studies the folklore behind mythical brutes such as Bigfoot and the Loch ness monster, came up with something called The Phantom Clown Theory , which attributes the spread of clown sightings to mass hysteria( usually triggered by incidents witnessed merely by children ).

Its impossible to decide which of these incidents are hoaxes and which are bona fide narratives of clowning around taken to the extreme. Nonetheless, the perpetrators seem to be capitalizing on our longstanding love-hate relationship with buffoons, tapping into the primal dread that so many children( and more than a few adults) experience in their presence.

In fact, a 2008 examine conducted in England revealed that very few children actually like jesters. It also concluded that the common practice of decorating kids wards in hospitals with pictures of jesters may create the exact opposite of a nurturing surrounding. Its no wonder so many people detest Ronald McDonald.

But as a psychologist, Im not only interested in pointing out that clowns give us the creepings; Im also interested in why we find them so disturbing. Earlier this year I published a study entitled On the Nature of Creepiness with one of my students, Sara Koehnke, in the journal New Ideas in Psychology. While the study was not specifically looking at the creepiness of jesters, much of what we discovered can help explain this intriguing phenomenon.

The marching of the jesters

Clown-like characters have been around for thousands of years. Historically, jesters and buffoons have been a vehicle for satire and for poking fun at powerful people. They a safety valve for letting off steam and they were granted unique freedom of expression as long as their value as entertainers outweighed the inconvenience they caused the higher-ups.

Jesters and others persons of ridicule go back at least to ancient Egypt, and the English word clown first appeared sometime in the 1500 s, when Shakespeare used the term to describe foolish characters in several of his plays. The now familiar circus clown with its painted face, wig and oversized dres arose in the 19 th century and has changed only slightly over the past 150 years.

Nor is the trope of the evil jester anything new. Earlier this year, writer Benjamin Radford published Bad Clowns, in which he traces the historical evolution of jesters into unpredictable, menacing creatures.

A detail from one of serial murderer John Wayne Gacys clown paintings. The Orchid Club/ flickr, CC BY

The persona of the creepy clown genuinely came into its own after serial killer John Wayne Gacy was captured. In the 1970 s, Gacy appeared at youngsters birthday parties as Pogo the Clown and also regularly painted pictures of jesters. When the authorities discovered that he had killed at least 33 people, interring the majority of members of them in the crawl space of his suburban Chicago home, the connection between clowns and dangerous psychopathic behavior became forever fixed in the collective unconscious of Americans.

Following the notoriety of Gacy, Hollywood exploited our deep ambivalence about jesters via a terror-by-clown campaign that presents no signs of going out of fashion. Pennywise, the clown from Stephen Kings 1990 movie It, may be the scariest movie jester. But there are also the Killer Klowns from Outer Space( 1988 ), the scary jester doll under the bed in Poltergeist( 1982 ), the zombie jester in Zombieland( 2009) and, most recently, the murderous buffoon in All Hallows Eve( 2013 ).

The nature of creepiness

Psychology, however, can help explain why jester the supposed purveyors of jokes and pranks often end up sending colds down our spines.

My research was the first empirical survey of creepiness, and I had a hunch that feeling creeped out might have something to do with ambiguity about not really being sure how to react to a person or situation.

We recruited 1,341 volunteers ranging in age from 18 to 77 to fill out an online survey. In the first section of the survey, our participants rated the likelihood that a hypothetical creepy person would exhibit 44 different behaviors, such as unusual patterns of eye contact or physical characteristics like visible tattoos. In the second segment of the survey, participants rated the creepiness of 21 different occupations, and in the third segment they simply listed two hobbies that they thought were creepy. In the final segment, participants noted how much they agreed with 15 statements about the nature of creepy people.

The results indicated that people we perceive as creepy are much more likely to be males than females( as are most buffoons ), that unpredictability is an essential part of creepiness and that unusual patterns of eye contact and other nonverbal behaviors set off our creepiness detectors big time.

Unusual or strange physical characteristics such as bulging eyes, a peculiar smile or inordinately long fingers did not, in and of themselves, cause us to perceive someone as creepy. But the presence of weird physical traits can amplify any other creepy tendencies that the person might be exhibiting, such as persistently steering conversations toward peculiar sexual topics or failing to understand the policy about bringing reptiles into the office.

When we asked people to rate the creepiness of various types of occupations, the one that rose to the top of the creep list was you guessed it clowns.

The results were consistent with my theory that get creeped out is a response to the ambiguity of threat and that it is only when we are confronted with uncertainty about threat that we get the chills.

For example, it would be considered rude and strange run for your lives in the middle of a dialogue with someone who is sending out a creepy vibe but is actually harmless; at the same day, it could be perilous to ignore your intuition and be participating in that individual if he is, in fact, a threat. The ambivalence leaves you frozen in place, wallowing in discomfort.

This reaction could be adaptive, something humen have evolved to feeling, with being creeped out a style to maintain vigilance during a situation that could be dangerous.

Why clowns set off our creeping alert

In light of our studys results, it is not at all surprising that we find them to be creepy.

Rami Nader is a Canadian psychologist who surveys coulrophobia, the irrational fear of buffoons. Nader believes that clown phobias are fueled by the fact that clowns wear makeup and disguises that hide their true identities and feelings.

This is perfectly consistent with my hypothesis that it is the inherent ambiguity surrounding clowns that make them creepy. They seem to be happy, but are they truly? And theyre mischievous, which sets people constantly on guard. People interacting with a clown during one of his routines never know if they are about to get a tart in the face or be the main victims of some other humbling prank. The highly unusual physical characteristics of the clown( the wig, the big red nose, the makeup, the odd dres) only magnify the uncertainty of what the jester might do next.

There are certainly other types of people who creep us out( taxidermists and morticians made a good show on the creepy occupation spectrum ). But they have their work cut off for them if they aspire to the level of creepiness that we automatically attribute to clowns.

In other terms, they have big shoes to fill.

Frank T. McAndrew, Cornelia H. Dudley Professor of Psychology, Knox College

Such articles was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article .

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