What’s your favourite phobia? Spiders? Heights? How about a human being in big shoes with a red nose and an unceasing capacity to fall over and laugh uproariously? If you’re feeling nervous already, you’re not alone. Fear of clowns, or coulrophobia to give its official name, is very common – more common, even, than fear of heights.
I was being shown round an office recently and for reasons unknown there was a small puppet clown on a filing cabinet who would shriek hysterically whenever someone passed by. It was truly horrible (and don’t get me started on how creepy puppets are – ventriloquists’ dummies might be my number one phobia). The office manager barely noticed this little monster’s existence and continued to sit at her desk looking bored while the gentleman in charge of the tour seemed to be at pains to point out how it worked. He even ran off to get more batteries. I stood very still and tried to ignore the creature’s staring eyes and manic grin, jittery that it might cackle and jump up at any moment. I remain unconvinced about my reasons for being there (a freelance job that didn’t work out, I’ll blame the clown) and haven’t set foot in it since.
Surely it’s all just a bit of fun? Laughter is the best medicine, after all, but science has a lot to say about this. Researchers at the University of South Wales asked hundreds of people to fill in a questionnaire about this odd fear and came up with several identifying factors. It turns out that clowns’ exaggerated movements are unpredictable, so we feel unnerved in their presence. Then there’s the makeup. It masks emotional cues and makes them look slightly inhuman – the ‘uncanny valley’ fear response when something is almost, but not quite, human. A classic case of fear-inducement if you ask me. And the big shoes and overly demonstrative acting and terrible jokes? Fearful in another way. Just stop it. It’s all a bit much.