While watching a season 2 episode of Supernatural last night called “Everybody Loves a Clown” I was confronted yet again with the unsettling disquiet I feel every time I see someone dressed as one. While I don’t exactly have coulrophobia (fear of clowns) I also really don’t like seeing them. I find clowns to be highly disturbing. But why is that?
I never saw the movie IT as a child. Not that in and of itself that’s surprising, but I know some people develop an early fear of clowns through some type of accidental exposure to a horror film. But why is a clown even the subject of a scary flick?
To me, clowns perfectly illustrate the created sense of horror. If we look at the broader question of why things on a written page or a TV screen can scare us, then it starts to make a bit of sense. Horror stories are basically divided into two types: slasher and psychological. Either it’s scary because of the blood, guts, and gore, or it’s scary because it tricks your mind into feeling unsafe. Movies like IT often combine these elements, but I think clowns themselves fall solidly into the mind-trick category. Why is that?
To artificially create a sense of horror, a story teller must first evoke something that seems safe and then turn it around to become unsafe. The familiar becomes strange and therein lies the terror. Our brains are wired for patterns and recognition (which is why we see shapes in clouds or think we recognize people we’ve never met), which helps us remember things and develop relationships and all sorts of other handy things that make our lives better. So what happens when something we’ve previously experienced as safe becomes unsafe?
Think about coming home at night when you’ve left during daylight and forgotten to leave on a light. Does it feel a little disquieting? What if something has moved since you left? Maybe you forgot that you dropped that towel there, but suddenly coming across it in the dark might be enough to really give you a fright. It’s easy to feel “creeped out” in your own home simply because it isn’t exactly how you thought it would be. It’s the feeling of having a curtain-less window at night where anyone can see into the room from outside, but you can’t see them from inside the lit room. Unsettling. It’s the same room and window as before but now you can’t be sure of what’s beyond the light.
Back to clowns. With our brains wired to detect patterns and to read faces, a clown with her mask or face paint goes directly in opposition to that. The expression painted on her face might not match what she’s really thinking or feeling. It might be unsettling to be unable to “read” her expressions correctly. It might also be that there’s something just off enough about the performance of a caricature of a person by a person is what makes the clown frightening. A clown is the representation of something that is supposed to be expected (a human) but is hiding her true identity and attitudes for the sake of misdirection. It’s no wonder people find them disturbing.
Weirdly enough, I think this is the same reason I don’t like old dolls.
Dolls are also representations of humans, and generally speaking new dolls are just fine. I’m not afraid of Barbie by any means. But Barbie doesn’t look “real” to me, either. When you’ve got an old doll, though, and it’s started to come apart at the seams, or has lost an eye, or simply looks like a discarded small person, then the creepy factor definitely rises.
I know movies like Toy Story and books like A Little Princess with tales of toys coming to life when the children aren’t present are meant to be endearing (and mostly are– I love Toy Story!), on some level the idea of a doll that can get up and walk around, but only when you’re not looking is actually a terrifying one.
And I suspect this is why the Weeping Angels on Doctor Who work so well as the stuff of nightmares. They only move when you’re not looking.
Well that’s enough about scary things for one Monday. Click here if you want to read more about coulrophobia. Lots of photos of clowns, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.