First, you hear the flap-flap-flap of ridiculously oversized shoes. Then, your nose picks up a weird whiff of white Max Factor greasepaint. You freeze in your tracks, eyes dilated with fear, when all of a sudden, you see it: the heart-stopping, adrenaline-boosting, red-nosed countenance of a clown.
If you are like 12 percent of the human population, your initial reaction to a clown sighting is a quickening of the heart rate, a catch in the breath, a cold sweat, and a tinge of stomach-churning nausea. You may feel paralyzed in place, or you might flee the scene with lightning speed. Fear of clowns is visceral, instantaneous, and very, very real.
Big time, big top terror
Coulrophobia is a neologism, or new word, that was devised around the turn of the 21st century. The pseudo-scientific label for an exaggerated fear of clowns may be of contemporary origin, but the deep-seated panic it defines goes back centuries.
Pranksters, jesters, and jokers are the evolution of clown-like characters who entertained pharaohs in ancient Egypt, says TechTimes. The first to call forth bone-chilling fear of clowns as we know them today was a fellow named Joseph Grimaldi in 1800s London. Grimaldi, who came up with the concept of white face paint, outlandish costume, and flagrantly red cheeks, performed a decidedly not-child-friendly harlequinade act, much to the amusement of 19th-century Londoners.
Recent clown sightings
The summer of 2016 sees the internet abuzz with news of clown sightings in South Carolina and Ohio. There’s even been a creepy, Pennywise-inspired clown spotted waving at passersby after midnight in Northampton, England, reports HeatStreet. (Pennywise, for those not in the know, is the white-faced, Bozo bewigged clown in Stephen King’s terrifying tome and subsequent movie, It.)
Carolina clown sightings started making the news on August 21. As reported by the Inquisitr, a flurry of scary clown sightings have been happening in proximity to a wooded area in Greenville County, South Carolina. According to several children who live at the Fleetwood Manor apartment complex, a man dressed as a clown has been trying to entice kids into the forest with green laser lights and large amounts of cash. The number of children reporting clown sightings resulted in a complex-wide letter from the Fleetwood Manor apartment manager telling parents to be extra cautious about where their kids play and with whom.
But it’s not just school age children who have experienced clown sightings in South Carolina. An adult woman told 48 Hours Crimesider that she saw a “large-figured clown with a blinking nose standing under a post light near the garbage dumpster area.”
Fear of clowns is no laughing matter
Coulrophobia Facts is dedicated to the digital dissemination of facts about clown fear. They say that fear of clowns, which generally develops during childhood, is serious stuff and should not be taken lightly. They also explain that young children may experience coulrophobia due to the fact that a clown’s exaggerated features and everlasting grin present a distorted image that can’t quite be believed.
To promote understanding of the natural human fear of clowns, Coulrophobia Facts provides a comments board where people with an overwhelming distrust of red-nosed, madcap merrymakers get together to discuss their clown phobia.
Mark, 52, says he’s been fearful of clowns since childhood.
“People at work make fun at me with it because I am 6ft, 3 inch tall and weigh 220lbs. Since I have been teased a lot over my fear of clowns, I have actually become less fearful. But if ever at a strange place and a clown is wondering around, you can bet I will not take my eyes off it.”
A person named “IM” chimed in with this:
“I was 7 and my brother and his friend kept me up til 3am to watch the movie IT. Then when I finally got to sleep after the movie they woke me up dressed like clowns with the infamous red balloon. Scared me so much I jumped off the top bunk and ran out of the house and down the road barefoot in the snow. I’m 29 now, but I am still terrified. If I even see a clown, clown afro or a red balloon I get away as quick as possible until I can’t see it anymore. I even got kicked out of a haunted house that had a clown. He grabbed me and I was so freaked out I kicked him in the nuts and punched him before running past the group to an emergency exit.”
Cindy described the experience that led to her fear of clowns:
“I have been terrified of clowns since very early childhood. My mom said I was the only kid at the parade screaming my head off. However, I am not afraid of ‘scary’ clowns at all. They are not real so they cannot get me. A happy clown on the other hand is my absolute worst fear. Recently we were at the fair and this jerk of a clown can see I’m just trying to pass by, quickly, after I spot him. He calls out to me, “hey momma! Where ya going?” That was the most horrifying experience of my life.”
Diabolical clowns in history
People who fear clowns may have very good reason to do so. Although ostensibly meant to amuse, clown costumes have been worn by some of the most nefarious murderers of all time. Take, for instance, this guy. Once seen, nobody can forget the image of serial killer John Wayne Gacy as his alter ego, Pogo the Clown.
— jarred tegarden (@jarredt1984) September 2, 2016
Pierrot is a traditional pantomime character in the commedia dell’arte style. Popular in France and Italy, Pierrot is a sad-faced, childlike buffoon who always wears white baggy pants, a loose-fitting white blouse with extra-large buttons, and a black cap.
— Rose (@thelifeof_rose) August 28, 2016
A bohemian-born Frenchman by the name of Jean-Gaspard Deburau famously portrayed Pierrot during the mid-18th century. In addition to being a beloved showman of his time, Deburau may also have been the first killer clown. As the story goes, Jean-Gaspard was out enjoying a stroll in 1836 when he encountered a group of unruly street kids. One of them taunted the off-duty clownish mime so badly, Deburau gave the child a smack upside the skull with his walking stick, killing the child immediately. Deburau was acquitted of murder and can currently be found underground at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, not far from Jim Morrison.
Some say the Italian opera, Pagliacci, in which a clown slays his wife, is based on the life of Jean-Gaspard Deburau.
If you suffer from a paralyzing fear of clowns, good luck. You may take little consolation in knowing that millions of people around the world are as afraid of clowns as you are.
[Photo by Agustin Marcarian/Getty Images]