Clown Phobia: Causes, Effects, And Treatments
Do you experience feelings of fear or anxiety when you see or think of a clown? If so, you're not alone. In a recent survey, 42% of Americans said they feared clowns. The reasons for such widespread fear can vary from the painted, unfamiliar faces of clowns to their wildly exaggerated outfits. Understanding clown phobia, its causes, and how to receive support can be beneficial if your phobia negatively impacts any aspect of your life.
What is clown phobia?
Coulrophobia, or "clown phobia," is an extreme fear of clowns. If you have this phobia, you may find clowns creepy, frightening, or terrifying. If you are terrified of clowns, you may also feel the same way about mimes or other characters who paint their faces. You may also feel terrified at the thought of a clown. A phobia of clowns is common, and you're not alone if you're experiencing this type of fear.
Although you might be able to tell yourself that clowns will not harm you, it can be challenging to shake off the fear. The phobia itself may be persistent. However, treatment for phobias is often possible.
What about clowns scares people?
Several factors can be at play in the cause of a person's clown phobia. Clown makeup and costumes often exaggerate certain body parts, such as the nose, feet, and hands. The makeup might also be scary or disturbing. Some people see these characteristics as funny, whereas others see them as unpleasant. To these people, it may be challenging to identify a clown's true intent and emotion, as its facial expression is painted to make the person seem happy, sad, or scary.
In addition to clowns looking unusual, they often behave differently. These anti-social and off-the-wall traits can further add to feelings of unease. This effect can be observed in how contemporary films have cashed in on the "evil clown" idea, which may further contribute to this phobia.
Outside of the entertainment industry, there are other representations of clowns being evil. In 2016, for example, Americans experienced a mass panic and an epidemic of scary clown sightings. Videos and stories of sinister clowns attempting to lure children away appeared online and throughout mainstream media. It's since been discovered that many of the reported incidents and sightings were rumors, pranks, and hoaxes. However, many people were frightened by this occurrence.
How does coulrophobia develop?
Coulrophobia often stems from childhood experiences. Many people may find that they become terrified by a clown when younger and that their fear has developed over time.
Many children fear clowns, and it is common to develop a phobia early on. A study from the University of Sheffield surveyed approximately 250 four to 16-year-olds and discovered that most participants disliked the idea of images of clowns being integrated into hospital decor.
Other causes of clown phobia may include the following:
- Brain function: Changes in brain function are thought to play a part in the development of phobias.
- Genetics: Having family members afraid of clowns may increase the risk of the fear being passed on via learned behavior or genetics.
- Trauma: Traumatic experiences involving clown costumes, makeup, or imagery may cause a phobia to occur.
What are the symptoms of a clown phobia?
Depending on the extent of your phobia, you may experience anxiety, fear, or panic attacks whenever you see a clown. Along with these feelings, you might experience the following symptoms:
- Chest pain
- Sweaty palms
- Abdominal pain
- Dry mouth
- Shortness of breath
- Feelings of terror
- Preoccupation with clowns or mimes
- Feelings of dread
- The urge to run or fight
- The urge to freeze or hide
Not all people with a clown phobia experience the same severity of symptoms. However, you may go out of your way to avoid seeing clowns or talking about them if you have this phobia. For example, you may shy away from children's parties or avoid watching certain movies and shows. Additionally, when you know you're about to face a situation that will potentially involve clowns, you may begin to fear the phobia itself.
Some people have frequent thoughts at night or during that day about the fear of encountering a clown. If your fear starts to impact your career, relationships, daily responsibilities, or well-being, reaching out for professional guidance may be beneficial.
Is clown phobia in the DSM?
Although clown phobia is not explicitly listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) or the World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), getting treatment for coulrophobia is still possible. In the DSM-5, all specific phobias are considered part of the "specific phobia" diagnosis.
To find out if you have coulrophobia, a mental health professional may ask you several questions regarding your symptoms and the length of time you've experienced them. If you opt to see a medical doctor, you might be asked questions about your medical history and your current medications. Your diagnosis may be based on whether you experience the following symptoms:
- You have a panic attack or feel stressed when exposed to clowns or clown imagery.
- You have a disproportionate fear of clowns.
- You understand that the level of fear you experience is unreasonable.
- You actively avoid clowns.
- Your symptoms are not explained by another mental illness, such as panic disorder.
- Your fear is causing you extreme distress or negatively impacting any area of your life daily or weekly.
How to address clown phobia at home
You might use several strategies to combat your coulrophobia, including the below options. These strategies can often be done at home. However, it may also be beneficial to have a therapist to talk to each week as you work through these lifestyle changes in case any unwanted symptoms occur.
Expose yourself to your fear
Exposure is a direct approach toward reducing your coulrophobia, and it is based on an effective therapy called exposure and response prevention (ERP). One way to start exposure is listing out your fears of clowns from a scale of least severe to most severe. For example, perhaps you aren't as afraid when you view a picture of a friendly clown online as you might be when interacting with a scary clown actor at a haunted house.
Start with your least severe fears and expose yourself to them, tracking your anxiety. You might notice your fear increases before it decreases, which can be a regular part of the exposure process. If you seek professional guidance, exposure therapy with a therapist may benefit you more.
Recognize that clowns are a costume or an act
Clowns are performers wearing makeup, often to entertain an audience. Scary imagery of clowns in movies or online videos may appear real and evoke emotional reactions, but they are often fictitious. Although the symptoms of fear are real and deserve to be recognized, reminding yourself why clowns exist and what they do might help you calm down when you notice your fears arising.
Identify the cause of your phobia
Consider taking time to sit down and think about what may have incited your fear of clowns. Once you discover the root of the problem, you may try to rationalize it with logical reasoning. You can try cognitive restructuring by changing your thoughts about clowns to fit the facts of the situation. For example, instead of thinking, "Clowns are going to hurt me," you could think, "I was afraid a clown would hurt me after I saw a video of a scary clown following people, and now I am going to practice self-care to distract myself from this fear."
Current treatments for clown phobia
There are various therapeutic treatments for clown phobia, including the following.
As with other phobias, clown phobia can be treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT may enable you to manage your phobia by modifying your behavior and thinking. Your therapist may show you how to overcome unwanted patterns in your thoughts and actions.
CBT doesn't often focus on the past. On the contrary, it tends to address your current concerns and zeroes in on practical methods to help you overcome your phobia. With your therapist's help, you can analyze the thoughts, actions, and physical feelings that arise when you see a clown or anything related to them.
After determining what changes you want, you may be asked to practice them daily whenever you think of your phobia. CBT often requires commitment and willingness to be open to the messages you learn from your therapist.
Exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP)
Exposure therapy is often used alongside CBT that may target a traumatic experience, fear, or compulsive behaviors related to a phobia. It aims to reduce feelings of distress by exposing you to a higher quantity of fear. In this case, you might work with your therapist on minor fears until you can expose yourself to your worst fears. As you learn to confront your fears, you may notice your phobia subsiding.
You may also learn to use relaxation techniques like breathing exercises throughout therapy. When incorporating these into your daily life, you may be better able to control your emotions when exposed to clown-related imagery or situations.
When living with a phobia, it may help to incorporate relaxing activities into your life. These activities might include a yoga class, acupuncture, or meditation. Some therapists offer mindfulness-based counseling, reiki, energy work, or yoga alongside sessions.
Counseling can be beneficial if your phobia is interfering with your everyday life. However, many people face barriers to in-person treatment that make it difficult to reach out for help. You might benefit from online phobia counseling if you're looking for cost-effective, convenient, and flexible therapy. Research has shown that phobia interventions, including exposure therapy, can be successfully treated with online counseling. A 2018 study, for example, successfully administered exposure therapy remotely to people experiencing a fear of flying. The results of the study were comparable to in-person counseling.
Through an online platform like BetterHelp, you can specify your symptoms upon signing up and match with a therapist trained in specific methods or specializing in phobias. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or chat sessions with your counselor, giving you control over how you receive support.
What triggers the fear of clowns?
Like other types of phobias, there are many plausible explanations for where the fear of clowns stems from and what triggers it for different individuals. However, a current study courtesy of researchers from the University of South Wales took a deeper look into why people may be afraid of clowns and, based on the results, posited eight plausible explanations:
- Uneasiness about their imitation of the human form and behaviors.
- For some, their exaggerated facial features convey a direct sense of menace.
- Their makeup hides emotional signals and creates uncertainty about intent.
- Their makeup sometimes appears not quite human, creating uneasiness in many.
- For some, their makeup prompts impressions of blood injury, infection, or death.
- Their unpredictable behavior may also convey hidden emotional signals that may seem threatening to some.
- Coulrophobia may have been modeled by family members, or the individual may have had a frightening experience with a clown during childhood.
- Negative portrayal of clowns in the media and popular culture.
Is it rare to be scared of clowns?
Research suggests coulrophobia affects people of all ages and is quite common worldwide. For example, a recent study by Scientific American used the Fear of Clowns Questionnaire to measure the prevalence and severity of clown fear among 987 participants between the ages of 18 and 77. The study concluded that, internationally, approximately 53.5% of respondents were afraid of clowns to some degree, with 5% reporting to be “extremely afraid.”
What is the longest phobia name?
Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia is the longest phobia name. It refers to the fear of long words.
What cures coulrophobia?
Most symptoms of phobias can be reduced using therapeutic methods such as exposure therapy. Exposure therapy aims to help people overcome phobias through gradual, repeated exposure to the source (in this case, clowns) facilitated by a trained therapist within a safe environment. Specific phobias like coulrophobia are also classified under the umbrella of anxiety disorders by the American Psychiatric Association and may be treated as such with methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in addition to exposure therapy.
Who was the first scary clown?
Joseph Grimaldi is primarily credited for being the first scary clown. He began performing under the persona “Joey” the clown in 1801, drawing large audiences throughout London and, eventually, the rest of Europe. Grimaldi died in 1837, and his memoir was published a year later after a young Charles Dickens organized, edited, and partially wrote it under Grimaldi’s name using his posthumous notes.
Which phobia is very rare?
Because the commonality of phobias fluctuates with societal changes and exposure, it is difficult to identify the rarest phobia definitively. (For example, coulrophobia is more commonly recognized now than in past generations, possibly because of exposure to characters like Pennywise from Stephen King’s novel “It.”)
However, some phobias are widely recognized as rare among the general population. For example:
- Arachibutyrophobia (the fear of having peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth)
- Linonophobia (fear of string)
- Lachanophobia (fear of vegetables)
- Globophobia (fear of balloons)
- Xanthophobia (fear of the color yellow)
- Pogonophobia (fear of beards)
Do clowns still exist?
Despite negative portrayals in the media, clowns still exist and work in many different capacities to entertain audiences. Professional clowns are typically actors and comedians who work in stage and film productions, circuses, and rodeos. Clowns also entertain children in schools and parties and provide comedic relief for hospitalized children. It’s estimated that there are 50,000 to 100,000 professional clowns worldwide, most of whom maintain primary jobs with clowning as a second.
Is Nyctophobia rare?
Nyctophobia (fear of the dark) is very common, with one 2015 study reporting over 50% of participants listed fear of the dark as one of their top five fears.
What is fear of death called?
The clinical term for fear of death is thanatophobia, not to be confused with necrophobia, which is the persistent, irrational fear of corpses.
Why do clowns exist?
In Western cultures, clowns initially existed to entertain the guests and royalty of medieval courts by juggling, performing acrobatics, and acting as a minstrel of the court. Later in the late Middle Ages, comedic actors provided comedic entertainment as court jesters. From there, the role of the clown as an entertainer evolved to include parts on stage and screen and performances in modern circuses such as the Cirque du Soleil.
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