Clown Phobia: Causes, Effects, And Treatments

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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.

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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
  • Palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Fainting
  • Sweaty palms
  • Lightheadedness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dry mouth
  • Shaking
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Feelings of terror
  • Preoccupation with clowns or mimes
  • Dissociation 
  • Crying
  • 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. 
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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. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy

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. 

Relaxation treatments 

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. 

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Explore clown phobia and its treatments

Counseling options 

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.  

Takeaway

If you are experiencing coulrophobia, you don't have to face it alone. Consider contacting a therapist online or in your area to receive further guidance and support as you navigate your phobia.

It is possible to overcome phobias

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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