The strangest of my personal fears is one that, instead of decreasing with age and logic (like the shark in the swimming pool), has increased with each passing year: clowns.
Watching with eyes startlingly human in that grotesque cartoon face, walking toward me with a balloon and a painted smile. And I give the clown my “everything’s fine” face and curse myself for forgetting mace.
It’s a fear we love to laugh at, no pun intended. The fools of the rodeo, the balloon-bearers of the circus, why should our skin crawl when we see them? Surely we are smarter and stronger than bungling buffoons… or are we? This uncertainty leads to the first explanation of our fear:
Explanation #1: Inability to Properly Compare
Humans love to compare. Whether or not we choose to believe we aren’t appearancists, everyone compares themselves to everyone they meet. It’s an evolutionary principle: which of us is fittest?
Although most of us will rarely find ourselves in a fight-or-flight moment of actual survival, we like to know our options. We size ourselves up: am I taller, stronger, smarter? Can I outrun or overpower this person walking toward me?
Could you take him?
Most of the time our (often subconscious) mind categorizes our opponent at the check-out stand or the other side of the waiting room and we know if we can take ‘em–just in case. For the same reason we are made uneasy by a cloaked individual with a shadowed face we are uneasy about a masked person with a painted face, their age and gender hidden with wigs and false noses. Their clothing is baggy, their shoes unnatural, are they fat or thin? Old or young, fast, with strong fists under those Mickey Mouse gloves?
Can we take ‘em?
We fear clowns because we don’t know.
If it comes at me, if it grabs me from behind after I’ve fake-smiled to get it to leave, can I struggle free? When we don’t know, we assume the worst, ergo, all clowns are mysteries and all mysteries are threats.
Humans being a herd-like creature, when we don’t know whether another creature should instill a fight-or-flight response, whether we can take ‘em, we look to the rest of the group for guidance. This is where the second explanation of our fears emerges:
Explanation #2: Stereotyping
Stereotyping has served mankind well when it comes to predators like sharks and clowns. Spiders are another great example. There are over 40,000 kinds of spiders in this world and only a handful are toxic to humans. Thanks to medical science, deaths by spider bite decrease every year. Why, then, did I scream and shake my arm like a maniac the last time I noticed an ant-sized spider on it? Stereotyping.
“Why can’t we be friends?” Teeny tiny spider sings in teeny tiny voice.
If so few spiders are actually toxic, why do we fear them all? Spiders are beneficial, extremely necessary parts of every ecosystem everywhere. We blow things out of proportion, splashing headlines with news of malicious killer spiders costing people arms and legs (and that’s before the hospital bill, ba-doom-chh!), in order to warn the rest of humankind, like a braying zebra that’s spotted a lion.
To be safe, we stereotype, we overgeneralize, and we build fortifications for our fears.
The thing about stereotypes, of course, is that somewhere down the line there was a reason. At some point, a spider killed a person. At some point, so did a clown.
Explanation #3: John Wayne Gacy
American serial killer John Wayne Gacy performed charity work as Pogo the Clown. Over the course of six years, he raped and killed 33 boys and men while masquerading as a lovable public figure. A wolf in clown’s clothing.
These were the clown suits “Pogo” wore.
Other senseless, crazy acts have been committed by “clowns”. In 2016, a woman was attacked by two men wearing clown masks and another woman. They wrote “clown posse” and put out a cigarette on her face, then left. Why?!
True stories like these hit the news and we stereotype as a means of protection. And the media is just getting started when it comes to “true” stories:
Explanation #4: The Twist of Fiction
Stephen King published “It” less than ten years after Gacy’s arrest, a story about the personification of fear itself (and 100% worth a read because it’s the most perfectly crafted novel I’ve ever read).
In 1990, the movie “It” was released, and just last year our coulrophobia (fear of clowns) was rekindled with an even more terrifying take on Pennywise the Dancing Clown and the fearful children inside us all with the new theatrical version of “It”.
A fan’s take on Pennywise the Dancing Clown.
The Joker and Harley Quinn in the Batman comics and films dress as clowns, and Heath Ledger’s film portrayal was the epitome of a soulless, psychotic fiend.
The evil clown has become a forceful trope, and any haunted house without a Pennywise isn’t worth its cornstalks.
With Halloween around the corner and many a Pennywise walking free, our fears increase with our subconscious confusion–what is real?
Explanation #5: Where Does Fiction End and Fact Begin?
I’m an adult. I have a credit card and debt that scares me nearly as much as clowns. When I see a clown, Pennywise-d or no, I should logically understand that it’s just a person inside a costume. They probably have a credit card, too (poor bastard). But with clown masks hiding true crimes and criminals looking for good disguises–the more creative the disguise the more creative the criminal and the more creative their crime–how can we know that the clown walking around the circus is really employed there?
Does the person behind the paint enjoy ice cream cones, like me, or do they enjoy ice cream cones while they stab lured victims to death and turning their skin into a brand new lampshade (not like me, I’ll add)?
The truth is, we don’t know. We can never know. Even though we don’t know if our next door neighbor or city councilman are vicious killers, we at least know if we can take ‘em. With a clown, dressed up, with permission to act a little “crazy”, we don’t know.
The fiction in our minds twists into possible fact as the clown approaches with a balloon. Maybe we take it and share a smile, maybe the clown uses the string to strangle us, maybe we lose our senses and stab the clown.
I’m a little too fond of the latter.