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Send in the Creepy Clowns

Credit: moccabunny/Adobe

Credit: moccabunny/Adobe

By Tim Hannan

Fear of clowns may result from an evolutionary adaptive “creepiness detector”.

Creepy clown sightings have increased exponentially in recent months, with media reports of painted or masked pranksters simultaneously entertaining and terrorising Australians throughout the country. The craze originated in the USA, where it appears to have been triggered by a remake of the Stephen King movie It, which features a murderous, sewer-dwelling clown named Pennywise.

Aside from the generally benign intentions of these perpetrators, media reports and commentary have served to invite the question: why do so many people report an intense dislike or even fear of clowns? A recent American study into the experience of finding another person to be “creepy” may illuminate the condition called coulrophobia – the irrational fear of clowns.

The study reported in the journal New Ideas in Psychology sought to investigate the concept of creepiness. Researchers recruited more than 1300 adult participants to complete an online survey that explored whether an individual’s gender, physical characteristics or overt behaviours contributed to them being judged as a creepy person. Participants also rated the perceived creepiness of a number of occupations, and nominated hobbies that they thought to be more commonly associated with creepy individuals.

Generally, the survey results confirmed that men are more likely to be perceived to be creepy than women. Unexpectedly, unusual physical characteristics such as bulging eyes or extremely long fingers were not found to be as predictive of a creepiness rating as were odd patterns of eye contact or preferences for odd topics of conversation, especially where these were of a sexual nature.

Most jobs were not particularly associated with creepiness, with meteorologists, farmers and financial advisors being judged to be particularly benign. Of the 21 nominated occupations, only four were viewed as disturbing: taxidermist, funeral director, sex shop owner, and – the creepiest of all – clown. As for hobbies thought to be associated with creepy individuals, topping the list were those involving collecting items, particularly dolls, insects, or teeth and fingernails. Also scoring high on the creep-o-meter were those who liked to watch children or birds.

A common theme in these findings is that participants felt apprehensive about those whose occupations, hobbies, conversational preferences or nonverbal behaviour made them appear fascinated with death or sexual behaviour. The researchers speculated that this unease may reflect an evolutionary adaptation that serves to raise our level of alertness to threat whenever we perceive any trait or characteristic that’s possibly associated with predatory or threatening behaviour. But how does this explain the participants’ rating of clowns as creepy?

One theory is that creepiness ultimately derives not from the presence of an explicit threat but from a sense of uncertainty about whether or not there is danger. That is, it is not a person’s interests, occupation, conversation or behaviour that makes us feel apprehensive, but our uncertainty regarding our safety in a somewhat ambiguous situation. According to this theory, it may be that the appearance and behaviour of clowns specifically serve to trigger these feelings of uncertainty.

First, clowns’ makeup and painted smiles are designed to mask their true identities and facial expressions, and as these nonverbal cues are perceived as unusual or even untrustworthy, they may activate our potential threat detectors. Second, clowns are known for their tendency to behave in odd and unexpected ways that breach social conventions, and this unpredictability also feeds into our awareness of potential threat or unpleasantness.

Not all clowns dwell in sewers, attack strangers or attempt to market hamburgers. However, given their odd appearance and often unpredictable behaviour, clowns are well-suited to trigger our innate creepiness detectors.

From the perspective of evolutionary adaptation, the fear of clowns may not be particularly irrational.

A/Prof Tim Hannan is Head of the School of Psychology at Charles Sturt University, and the Past President of the Australian Psychological Society.