An Updated Understanding of the Etiology of Coulrophobia

By: Yosef Scher  |  April 21, 2023

By Yosef Scher, Science and Technology Editor

Although many people are afraid of clowns, psychologists have never been able to explain why clowns cause so much fear in individuals of all ages. However, in a recent article published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers at the University of South Wales may have found the answer.

Before elucidating why coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns, scares so many people, Sophie Scorey and James Greville, the study’s lead researchers, had to determine how many people have this phobia. While past studies indicated that the international clown fear among people from all cultures and ages was as little as 17%, 5.6%, or 1.5%, Scorey and Greville discovered that the number of people with this phobia was much higher than previous results indicated. Using an updated clown questionnaire, Philip Tyson, the lead investigator of the largest and most recent study to date, discovered that 528 out of the 987 individuals from 64 different countries who filled out the questionnaire had some form of coulrophobia. With more than half of the participants indicating that they had coulrophobia, Scorey and Greville began investigating possible causes and triggers for the fear.

However, before the questionnaire was given to the participants, Scorey and Greville first researched the etiology, or the origin, of phobias. They found that the current theories can be broadly split into three general categories: “those relating to their physical appearance, those relating to their behavior, and those derived from learning and/or experience.” There are many components within the category of clown’s physical appearance which help to explain coulrophobia. To start, scientists think that coulrophobia stems from the “uncanny valley effect,” which is the feeling of repulsion that people have when they look at something that looks human but is not quite human. For example, clowns wear a lot of makeup, which distorts their facial features. Therefore, when someone with coulrophobia looks at a clown, they view the clown as being “near human” but not entirely human. While the uncanny valley effect could potentially contribute to coulrophobia, Scorey and Greville did not believe that it was the root cause of the phobia. Another theory proposed by Carlin Flora, an editor for Psychology Today, suggested that coulrophobia is caused by difficulty processing the genuine emotions of the person because of all the makeup they put on their face. She furthers her argument by adding an advantageous evolutionary element by writing that “the clown’s painted smile may [conceal] anger and aggression and therefore be a potential threat to [an individual’s] safety.” As a result, people are fearful of clowns and have an intense reaction when they see one.

The unpredictable nature of a clown has also been theorized to cause coulrophobia in some people. To expand on this, when a clown performs in a show or at a party, the clown usually puts an emphasis on performing magic tricks and sleight-of-hand movements. For some individuals, this unpredictable behavior scares people and may lead a person to develop coulrophobia.

Unlike the previous two theories, which emphasize the clown as the cause of one’s fear, the last theory of why some people fear clowns stems from past experiences. According to Stanley Rachman, a renowned psychologist, a phobia can be acquired from three different possibilities: direct experiences, observation, or negative media portrayals of something, like a creepy clown or a plane crash.   

After exploring the current theories on why some people have coulrophobia, Scorey and Greville sent out a questionnaire to the participants. They analyzed the results and found that coulrophobia stems from a combination of all the current theories proposed. That being said, the factors that people indicated on the questionnaire that they were most afraid of were hidden emotional signals and negative media portrayals of clowns, such as the movie It. As such, it seems that the unusual appearance of a clown and society’s depictions of clowns are the main contributing factors to someone fearing clowns. Surprisingly, the element that least contributed to coulrophobia was determined to be a frightening experience with a clown. 

While the study has made progress in understanding the complex nature of phobias, Scorey and Greville know that the limitations of their research, such as filtering out participants with co-occurring mental health conditions, will enable future researchers to conclude the root psychological cause of coulrophobia definitely, and ultimately, will allow scientists to better understand other phobias in the process.