Coulrophobia is an irrational or uncontrolable fear of clowns. Why, you might wonder, would anyone be afraid of clowns? Who wouldn't laugh at their antics? Who could help smiling at their funny costumes and makeup? They're like real-life cartoons. What could possibly be scrary about a clown?
Xander: Remember my sixth birthday party?
Willow: (laughs) Oh, yeah! When the clown chased you and you got so scared that you had...
(stops smiling) Oh!
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Like any phobia, the origin and degree of coulrophobia differs widely from case to case. For some it starts due to a traumatic childhood experience, while for others it manifests later in life without a discernable origin. Some people simple don't trust anyone in a clown suit, while others will go fetal at the sight a clown suit just hanging on a rack. Lucklily enough, aside from the occasional street mime, most adults have no problems avoiding clowns. Children, on the other hand, are the often forced into contact with them at one time or another as youngsters, at birthday parties or more likely as part of a county fair or circus experience.
"I am not the type to faint
When things are odd or things are quaint
But seeing things you know that ain't
Can certainly give you an awful fright!
- Pink Elephants on Parade
At the intersection of circuses and cartoons you'll find "Dumbo". Ask any child if they trust those clowns (let alone the pink elephants) and you'll see how truely smart children are. While cartoons may be fun to watch, no one would want to be in one unless they were suicidal. Between falling pianos and magically-appearing sticks of dynamite, any normal person would end up dead in a hurry. We laugh at cartoons, but some part of us laughs because we're scared. Despite their bright colors and snappy music, at their heart cartoons are scary, depicting a world where nothing can be trusted, especially not appearances.
We all float down here, Richie!
Stephen King may have brought the terrifying aspect of clowns into the public consciousness when he introduced the world to Pennywise in "It", but he certainly didn't invent the idea. Poltergeist had parents avoiding their children's clown dolls for years after its release. In "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari", Cesare, while not literally a clown, certainly fits the description. Or look at The Phantom of the Opera: the Phantom wears a mask to hide his deformed and inhuman visage, but his mask cannot hide the lack of humanity in his actions.
A clown is funny in the circus ring,
but what would be the normal reaction to opening a door at midnight
and finding that same clown standing there in the moonlight?
- Lon Chaney, Sr.
Clowns were scary long before they were regarded as evil. Their very appearance screams, "I live outside your rules!" In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell points out that many cultures didn't follow the Hindu or Egyptian pattern of giving gods animal heads or multiple arms to make them inhuman. Instead, they depicted their gods with brightly colored, mask-like faces. They did this to represent something beyond comprehension, something alien. Instead of whatever is really there, we see a mask, a clown face - something safe and understandable - and yet very certainly not natural, not part of any sane reality.
Can't sleep, clowns will eat me
What does all this mythology have to do with the nice person you might hire to entertain at your child's birthday party? A lot actually. Under the face paint and polka-dots is a person. That person, if he (or she) is a professional, has taken the time to register their unique clown face with one of the clown registries. They have chosen to be a professional trickster, to follow in the footsteps of Loki and Coyote. They wear their smiles or tears as a mask, part of the clothing they take off at the end of the day. Maybe that's not the kind of person you want around your children.
I used to love being a clown. It meant you could get away with murder.
- John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
Clive Barker's A - Z of Horror
Matt_t_hat's phobia list