Why People Are Afraid of Clowns, According to Clowns

scary clown
Shutterstock (edited)

Pennywise is a horrifying, clown-looking alien who kills a ton of children in Stephen King’s It. A regular clown is a human being with more makeup on than a Real Housewife who brings joy to children at birthday parties and the circus. Yet, people are equally terrified of both. But where does this fear of clowns come from? Is it all Stephen King's fault? To figure it all out and maybe improve our balloon animal skills, we talked to human clowns about why people of all ages are so afraid of them. Surprisingly, real-life serial killer-clown John Wayne Gacy isn't even mentioned once.

It clown

It really was terrifying

“The movie It has a lot to do with it,” says Kawshun, a clown for the past 30 years. “I’ve never seen the movie, and I have no desire to see it.” Like Kawshun, I never saw the movie, but the image of It looking evil while hiding in a sewer is seared into my brain. This ubiquitousness is due in large part to who made the film: ABC turned Stephen King's novel into a network miniseries in 1990, thus beaming ads for the murderous clown narrative -- and, obviously, the movie itself -- into unsuspecting TV sets across America.

DeanO T. Clown, a Georgia-based clown concurred, and thinks other horror flicks should share in the blame too. "I think it's because of the movies out there where clowns are vicious, sneaky, bad characters," he says. "Like the movie It. There are several clowns, like Pennywise and some others, that are totally evil. So the teenagers that go to those horror movies, it gets into their head that clowns are bad." Because of this, he says teenagers are scared of him more than any other age group. Teenagers! They text and drive, so they're not afraid of death, but they're afraid of a man wearing makeup.

Chuck E Cheese
Andy Kryza/Thrillist

Any life-sized, almost-human, talking creature is scary

Clowns are obviously human beings wearing makeup. But kids don't always know that. "Young kids are trying to figure life out, and to have a life-sized living, breathing, speaking thing that, to them, is not a human being -- it's a clown," DeanO T. Clown explains. "And in their imaginations, and in the books and on TV -- clowns are different than human beings. Just like Santa Claus or Chuck E. Cheese. And the Easter Bunny. And often you'll have the same reaction to costumed characters when they're life-sized and standing next to the child."

Kawshun echoed those sentiments, "If [a child] is afraid of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, they're going to be afraid of a clown." Unless they're a Jewish kid like I was. Then they are only afraid of Hanukkah Harry.

clown stamps
Flickr/Kevin Dooley

Early clown trauma is scarring as kids get older

Parents' and grandparents' eagerness is part of the problem too. The story I heard again and again was a variation of Boswick the Clown's story: "Grandparents are the worst -- especially if they're [holding] a kid who's small enough to be in the grandparent's arm. They thrust them at you. You see the kid's watching you, and then they thrust them forward, and the kid yells. And you get blamed for that." Boswick says many children are timid, not scared. And when they're forced to interact, they're not huge fans. This is like if you went to a party this weekend without your phone and then your grandma made you talk to everyone in the room.

While many parents might know not to shove their bundles of joy into the face of a grinning man with a wig, just the circus or a raucous birthday party can create a traumatic situation for children. "There are times when clowns have to be loud," explains Cleveland's Diamonds the Clown. "They have to make a lot of noise so they can be heard. And some children interpret that as scary."

Flickr/Patrick Buechner

Maybe people aren't truly afraid of clowns

Boswick says people "who are truly afraid of clowns" probably number around 3% of the population. And you can spot those people because they act a certain way: "Adults who are truly afraid will apologize to you. They say, 'I'm really sorry, but I have a phobia.' They don't do the, 'Eww, I don't like clowns. I'm afraid of clowns! You're scary!'” He also says that well-worn jokes about people being afraid of clowns have circulated for so long that people "start to believe it."

Even more interesting, all the clowns I spoke to noted that if a kid is scared of them at the beginning of a party, the clown can almost always win them over by the end by using a few clever techniques -- one of the popular ones is where the clown pretends to be super afraid of the child. Fear, like algebra, is learned. Kids aren't naturally afraid of clowns. They might be shy and timid, but they're generally not afraid. After all, as Bee Bee the Clown posed to us, "Clowns are trying to be fun. And what's wrong with a little bit of fun?"

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Lee Bresloueris a senior writer for Thrillist and is not afraid of clowns. Follow him to fear-free living at @LeeBreslouer.