Ed. Note: What better way to round out Halloween than by considering why it is that clowns can strike fear into our hearts when they’re supposed to be harmless?
Coulrophobia is the fear of clowns. And I’ll admit that they make me nervous. I’m not totally crazy about hanging out with folks who think wearing massive amounts of face paint and a fake rubber nose is okay, and that jokes at my expense are funny. Pennywise is not a natural being. I’m not sure my discomfort qualifies as coulrophobia, though—unless we’re talking about the roving bands of crazy clown posses that spring up around Halloween and populate haunted houses and other attractions. In that case, it’s totally coulrophobia.
S and I usually go to a nearby haunted house sponsored by a firehouse as a part of our Halloween festivities. It’s typically a good time. Each room is a different scene with a grand theme to round out the experience. I love the mad scientist and the killer butcher, and one year we stumbled on Michael Myers watching television. The first year we went, there were zombie pirates. Another year, there were lots of Little People (think Cirque du Freak). And last year, there were clowns. Lots of clowns. Clowns wielding chainsaws. Clowns wielding axes. Clowns laughing maniacally. Clowns popping out of boxes. Clowns who streamed endlessly from a stalled clown-car. Clowns who, it seemed, wanted to drag me to my doom—maybe make me into a clown, so I’d spend eternity wearing a painted smile and hating the entire world.
I knew they were actors, and I knew they couldn’t (and wouldn’t) touch me, but I can hardly describe the terror that gripped me. Nor can I remember ever screaming that loudly. I was totally spooked. We did not go back this year—S was sorely disappointed when I vetoed the trip. I, however, am relieved to put that chapter behind me.
I’m not the only one who gets uneasy around these jokers. In 2008, BBC news reported on a University of Sheffield study on hospital design that suggested that children found clown imagery far from soothing. A follow-up discussion highlighted how the unfamiliar can be unsettling—and clowns definitely have a knack for being “wrong” in a way that you just can’t pinpoint—from a laugh that lingers too long or is too loud, or humor that’s inappropriate (e.g., laughing at misfortune).
Tricksters have a reputation for being bawdy, antisocial, and clever. They’re characters with whom many of us are quite familiar—Bugs Bunny, for example, is a trickster. Anansi the spider, Hermes, Loki, and Rumpelstiltskin are tricksters. (Tricksters are typically male; Eris, the Greek goddess of discord, is a notable exception.) The fairy tale legions of leprechauns, fairies, and goblins are also tricksters. So what is it about clowns that strikes terror into the hearts of so many?
Clowns aren’t masked figures, but their painted faces come close. With face and neck covered in white or pink or tan makeup, and exaggerated features drawn in red and black, these characters are instantly recognizable as troublesome. The fluidity of their dress may actually contribute to why they make so many people uneasy.
Anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss has discussed extensively the “freedoms” awarded by a mask: They let people bypass conventions and the everyday, sometimes acting as “the medium for men to enter into relations with the supernatural world” (1). Masks allow wearers to adopt a new identity by constructing a new face for the individual—and restricting the range of human responses possible (2):
“The facial disguise temporarily eliminated from social intercourse that part of the body through which, people have long believed, the individual’s personal feelings and attitudes are revealed or can be deliberately communicated to others. The face is the organ by which self and society carry on the largest portion of the communication in which they engage, not only linguistic communication but paralinguistic as well.”
Masks, then, impose a new set of communicative rules on the individual, who is separated from normal social behavior and expectations once the mask is in place.
However, the mask itself carries an identity. So the individual does not have total freedom behind the mask, but must exhibit the traits of the character he means to portray. For example, if you opt to wear a Michael Myers mask for Halloween, to be a convincing Michael Myers you might want to tilt your head as he does and walk in his deliberate way. The mask will hold his expression for you, but if you are to be believed in your identity, you have to play the part. You may be free from the rules that govern your behavior, but there are still rules to adhere to.
What rules of behavior do clowns have to observe?
With their painted faces, clowns are free to push the limits of tolerance. Their sense of humor is perpetually etched on their faces—and the sources of their humor knows know bounds. We learn to recognize humor—it’s awkward when you’re the person who laughs at the wrong moment. Certain situations and objects are exempt from humor. Sacred objects, events, or people, for example. And sexual humor can sometimes be inappropriate, as can humor based on another’s injury or misfortune (3). Humor may not be appropriate with certain audiences—sending lewd jokes to your boss might not be a good idea, but your circle of friends might enjoy and encourage that sort of humor. And some social roles don’t lend themselves easily to humor; they command respect precisely because they are serious and unsmiling.
Clowns break all of these social codes concerning humor. With their painted smiles, they encourage the audience to laugh at the “neglected and improper elements” of community life (4). In this light, horror movie fans may find the young Michael Myer’s decision to don his clown mask before killing his sister particularly ominous. Acting is a selective process (5). Actors choose the character elements available to them to effectively convey a sense of the character. If acting involves self-selection and clowns breach the boundaries for what we are told can be humorous, are they intentionally selecting for darkness and subversion?
That clowns insist that we laugh all the time leaves little room for other experiences. While laughter can be warm, it can also be cruel and mocking. Wherever you are this Hallow’s Eve, I hope you have a clown free evening. Be careful when you go to bed, though—the clowns might eat you.
Alford, F., & Alford, R. (1981). A Holo-Cultural Study of Humor Ethos, 9 (2), 149-164 DOI: 10.1525/eth.1981.9.2.02a00030
Honigmann, J. (1977). The Masked Face Ethos, 5 (3), 263-280 DOI: 10.1525/eth.1977.5.3.02a00020
Levi-Strauss, Claude. (1961). The Many Faces of Man. World Theatre, 10, 3-61
1. Levi-Strauss 1961: 19. | 2. Honigmann 1977: 275. | 3. Alford and Alford 1981: 153. | 4. Alford and Alford 1981: 150. | Honigmann 1977: 272
Get 6 bi-monthly digital issues
+ 1yr of archive access for just $9.99