Have you had a creepy clown confrontation yet?
Unless you have been entirely disconnected from the news, you have no doubt heard of the creepy clown epidemic plaguing the United States. This trend seems to have its roots in reports of clowns attempting to lure children into the woods outside an apartment complex in Greenville, SC1. Though police never found any solid evidence of clowns running amok, the craze had taken hold. Within a month, reports of creepy clowns lurking around neighborhoods had come in from numerous states2, including Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Tennessee, and by late September, a man had actually been arrested in Kentucky3 for lurking near apartments in a clown get-up. Things escalated when two schools were closed in Ohio after a woman reported being attacked by a clown, who then threatened students4. The hysteria has since spread across the Atlantic, with reports of creepy clowns lurking in the UK5 and, most recently, a man being stabbed by a stranger wearing a clown mask in Sweden6. The situation has gotten so out of hand, that Target stores removed clown masks from their Halloween section7.
At the moment, no one knows for certain what started this “outbreak” (some have speculated that it started as a publicity stunt8), but these events raise an intriguing question: why are so many people anxious about clowns? At their heart, modern clowns are intended as silly, comedic entertainers. The World Clown Association9 states that its members seek “to bring happiness, joy, and fun to children of all ages.” Likewise, Clowns of America, International10 has “Ambassadors of Joy” as their motto, and their code of ethics states that clowns should provide only “clean comedy entertainment” that would be appropriate for children. And yet, clowns are a common fixture of horror films, such as Stephen King’s It, and some individuals even claim to have a specific phobia of clowns, known as coulrophobia. So what accounts for these fears?
Unfortunately, there is exceedingly little empirical work on this topic. One possibility, though, has to do with what is known as the “Uncanny Valley.” The Uncanny Valley was first proposed by Dr. Masahiro Mori11, a professor of engineering at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Mori wasn’t interested in clowns, however. Instead, he was interested in robot design. He argued that making a robot look increasingly human would result in people liking that robot more – but only up to a point. As a robot reached a “near human” appearance, he believed that people would begin to find it creepy, causing a dramatic decrease in how much people liked it. This sudden decrease in affinity has been termed the “Uncanny Valley.” Why might a close-to-human appearance disturb us? One hypothesis is that it produces a sort of perceptual incongruence, or disconnect, between what we expect and what we see12-13. For instance, when you see a very human-looking robot move in a nonhuman fashion (i.e., with disjointed or unusual movements), this experience violates our expectations of that robot, resulting in psychological discomfort. Likewise, seeing a human behave in a very non-human way could have a similar effect.
Perhaps the most well-known example of this phenomenon is the 2004 film adaptation of The Polar Express14. In producing the film, the directors opted to use advanced motion-capture technologies, which allowed them to give their digital characters hyper-realistic movement and appearance. However, the plan seems to have backfired. Many reported that the characters looked creepy, and a CNN movie review15 even said that the film should have been given the tagline, “Night of the Living Dead” because the characters were “that frightening.” This review is in stark contrast to the highly popular movie The Incredibles16, released the same year, which utilized cartoon characters with stylized movements and received tremendous praise.
When it comes to clowns then, it is possible that they, too, fall into the Uncanny Valley. Whereas the creators of The Polar Express took digital characters and attempted to make them more human, clowns take the human form and attempt to make it less human – more cartoon-like – for the sake of comedy. They apply face paint, fake noses, wigs, funny shoes, and sometimes attempt to walk or talk in strange ways. In some cases, this performance can be lighthearted and amusing, but such strange behavior can also be very off-putting to certain individuals or in certain contexts, such as a dark forest behind an apartment complex. Essentially, they produce a strong violation of what we might expect from a human-looking creature and can, consequently, appear extraordinarily creepy.
To be sure, this explanation is speculative, and researchers are still attempting to pin down why some individuals fear clowns. However, it is very clear from recent events that clowns are here to stay. So, if you have fear or anxiety regarding clowns, what should you do? If your fear is strong enough, you might want to consider consulting a therapist. In the meantime, though, perhaps one way to reduce your fear is to remember that, underneath that face paint and red nose, is just another human.
11. Mori, M. (1970). Bukimi no tani [The uncanny valley], Energy, 7 (4), 33-35.
12. Moore, R. K. (2012). A Bayesian explanation of the ‘Uncanny Valley’effect and related psychological phenomena. Scientific reports, 2, 864.
13. Pollick, F. E. (2009, December). In search of the uncanny valley. InInternational Conference on User Centric Media (pp. 69-78). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
Sam Hunley holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology from Emory University. He pursued his Bachelor's degree in psychology from Furman University and a master's from Emory. Sam's research, alongside Dr. Stella Lourenco, focuses on human perception of the space surrounding the body, exploring the impact of anxiety and phobias on this perception. Together, they contribute to Anxiety.org articles. Post-graduation, Sam became a Presidential Management Fellow.