Coulrophobia is actually a very common phobia. Over half the people I know suffer from some anxiety when exposed to clowns (this is for you guys!). However, like most phobias, there’s a reason… Grease paint.
Children and adults alike are adversely affected by clowns. And it’s all because of the make-up worn by clowns. It does two very important things; it hides the features of the person behind the make-up and it hides the expressions (micro and macro) of the person behind the make-up.
As human beings, we are constantly cataloging the features of the person with whom we are interacting. Size of nose, complexion, mouth shape, lip size, hair color, distinguishing marks, etc, even though we are unlikely to remember these features at a later date (just ask a handful of eyewitnesses), these are all visual confirmations that we are interacting with an actual person. The visual confirmation is missing when we are interacting with a clown because their features are distorted by the grease paint and any other adornments (wigs, a fake rubber nose, a flower that squirts water, whatever). Without these, it is no different than speaking with an automated system (which drives us nuts).
Worse, because we cannot see their features, we cannot discern their intent. Is their smile real or are they thinking about what we would taste like with barbecue sauce? The micro expressions that help us determine whether the macro expressions are real are missing because of the grease paint. We’ve all seen fake smiles. We’ve all seen people literally grin and bear it. However, we know these expressions are fake by the micro expressions that accompany them.
For the record, this is also the reason children have a tendency to freak out around Santa Clause or people in costumes.
Popular culture has fed off this natural fear. The demonic It is an excellent example. Not only do we understand that he is demonic and supernatural, but he preys on children by pretending to be a clown. Stephen King knew exactly what he was doing when It first appeared as a clown. Tim Curry just made him even more terrifying by being extremely creepy as the clown. Also, most Americans born after 1950, equate the evil It with a real life monster; John Wayne Gacy, even if it is a subconscious connection (for the record, Gacy never wore his clown suit to kill, but because most people are naturally weary of clowns, the concept of the Serial Killing Clown is forever etched into our memories thanks to Gacy’s odd desire to entertain children in hospitals).
Of course, there is an upside to this natural weariness. The reason the newest movie release of Dredd was such a success is because we never see more than Karl Urban’s mouth (except for when he’s patching up his bullet wound and we see his stomach). In this case, because we are not distracted by his eyes, nose, ears, hair, and whatever, we notice the micro expressions that accompany his mouth. His constant frown appears real to us and there are a few moments when that scowl slips just a little and we realize that despite the frown, he is approving of his rookie’s assessment. He comes off as a badass as well as the approving mentor. However, it is only reversed because his mouth is visible. Despite the belief that the eyes are the most expressive part of our face, it is in fact, our mouth. A smile may not touch the eyes, but if it creates just the right minute lines in the corners of the lips, we understand it as a real smile and not a fake one.
Now, this does not mean I will stop posting pictures of creepy clowns on my personal or public Facebook page. The practice will continue with zealous abandonment, because I do understand the psychology behind it. It is not meant as a malevolent form of torture, but as a way to remind us that even the mundane can be terrifying.