The psychology of scary clown epidemics

The Psychology of Scary Clowns

In August 2016, an ‘epidemic’ of scary clown sightings were reported, starting in the US. Scary clowns were then seen in the UK in October. What is the psychology of such scary clowns – why are they so darn creepy? And is it an ‘epidemic’?

Scary clowns

Being scared of clowns of is not a new phenomena. Although it is not listed as a official mental condition in diagnostic manuals such as the DSM-V, it is still a widely recognised phobia. Indeed, it even has an semi-official name – coulrophobia. Scary clowns are a well-established meme in popular culture (appearing in films such as IT, ‘Killer Clowns’ and of course Batman’s foe ‘The Joker’!). Indeed, a service evaluation of children’s care suggests that many children are actively (‘universally’) afraid of clowns – so they probably are not a great choice to entertain sick kids!1

But why are clowns be so amazingly creepy?

Those that have thought about this put forward a few reasons clowns are scary:

  1. They have distorted features which are unreal, but not too fantastic. This slight unreality puts us on edge, but we can’t put our finger on exactly why, because it’s not too distorted. This activates a general fear response. This effect is particularly pronounced during the formative years in childhood when we are exposed to them.

  2. We like predictability, indeed much of our cognitive effort revolves around our attempts to understand others’ behaviour. Clown don’t behave predictably. Smell a flower, they spray you. Buckets aren’t filled with water, but bits of ribbon. One gets in a car and twenty get out. Weird, weird, weird unpredictable stuff.

  3. We learnt they were scary through films (see above, but add a dozen 80’s horror films, weird dark BBC comedies and the like) and it’s a conditioned response. I guess you could test this by exposing my partner, who apparently never saw a film in the 80s (not even the Goonies!) to a clown.

  4. They express some deeper uncertainty about society. Author Ben Radford2 has written a book on scary clowns (called Bad Clowns*) which suggests, amongst other things, clown sighting increase in times of social uncertainty. Like now.
    So, that may explain why we find them uncomfortable to look at, but what about the current ‘epidemic’?

Scary clown epidemics?

The October UK ‘epidemic’ also highlights something else about our psychological make-up – we are quick to see ‘epidemics’. Indeed, in the 90’s, there was an epidemic of alien abductions which I have blogged about before. At the time of writing, however, there have been a handful of ‘scary clown’ incidents (probably less than 100) in the UK. However, the newspapers, social media and chatter suggest we are awash with the little blighters. Now, it may be I am all wrong, and by the time this publishes we are living in some form of clown run dystopia. But I think we are probably seeing this blown out of proportion. It is distressing for those who see or interact with a tiny minority of people dressed as clowns who act aggressively, but the frequency of such acts is vastly lower than, for instance, muggings, assaults or people being hit by cars.


I may be wrong, but also not too worried about a clown-run dystopia! #clownsightng Share on X

Close encounters of the clown kind.

I’ll admit, my work colleague got me a bit twitchy about this whole clown thing by expressing a concern a scary clown had been seen on our route to the train station. I’ll be honest, a bit of me was expecting to be mobbed as we walked back! Turns out a clown had been seen (in London, population lots of millions), but not on our actual route! But why? Overestimating the frequency of unusual events is a natural psychological response. It occurs mainly because humans are highly sensitive to two sorts of information – that which is novel, and that which is negative and dangerous. From an evolutionary point of view this is useful – in relatively static environments it pays to attend to change, and the cost of missing threats is high. In a media rich modern world, however, such sensitivity can lead to many false alarms! So, safe in the knowledge that my worry about clown invasion is probably exaggerated I shall try not to lose too much sleep tonight. But I probably will because they are so freaky creepy!

UPDATE – my partner read this and I can report she claims she IS NOT SCARED OF CLOWNS. That’s science that is.

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  1. Curtis, P., James, A., & Birch, J. (2007). Space to care: children’s perceptions of spatial aspects of hospitals. Swindon: ESRC End of Award Report. 
  2. Radford, B. (2016). Bad Clowns. UNM Press. 

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