Coulrophobia–the fear of clowns–kind of explained. According to “How Clowns Became Terrifying” in the Atlantic, it’s John Wayne Gacy’s fault. It’s also an adult thing…most children still find them funny, as anyone who’s been to a circus can attest, and The Atlantic post cites a study here about the same. Grown ups, though, weird things that they are, get themselves all freaked out by a guy in a bozo outfit. They really get into it too, trying to out freak each other. You can see that on Facebook all the time. Someone posts a clown picture, and commenters begin one upping each other in how freaked out they are. To those of us unafflicted with the phobia (not to mention the drama queenery) it seems ridiculous. But people love their phobias, and don’t like to part with them. And face it, there aren’t as many phobias as there used to be. We once lived in a web of phobias, Freud validating and explaining every one of them. They were badges of pride, those phobias. People spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on their therapist’s couch bragging about them. Bob Newhart helping Mr. Peterson overcome his fear of geese. Woody Allen’s endless analyst jokes. Alas, Freud went the way of phrenology and people stopped bragging about their personal collection of fears. They became silly, all those phobias did, embarrassing. Decadent even. Though the fall of Freud did have one benefit for phobiacs…you can now be scared of something, irrationally scared, without it being a symptom of deep seated sexual problems. No more latent auto sexual mother loving homoerotic phallic vulvoid fantasies having something to do with hating your father. Today you can tell someone you’re deathly afraid of clowns and they won’t wonder what kind of sicko you are. They won’t shoo away the children. The end of Freudian analysis freed phobias from all that subconscious moral turpitude. Indeed, you can feel free to wonder about those who are not deathly afraid of clowns. Catch us snickering at Bozo and shoo away the kids. After all, John Wayne Gacy was a clown and he was sick as they come.
Looking back, clowns were probably at their peak in the fifties and sixties during the baby boom. Bozo, Clarabel, Hobo Kelly. Red Skelton’s clown paintings. But now, after several decades of a declining birth rate, it’s an adult world, and if adults are willing to let themselves be weirded out by a guy in a clown suit, they’ll make sure their kids are weirded out too. Or worry about them if they aren’t. Thus are superstitions made and passed on. Sometimes I wonder if the fear of clowns is some of the ptomaine remaining from the day care sex abuse hysteria in the 1980’s. That was horrible stuff, and I remember thinking from day one that it was all bullshit. The reason was that I had just read Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Emperor–Downfall of an Autocrat. It’s a helluva book, about the fall of Haile Selassie but one story really stuck with me. In villages in parts of rural Ethiopia, when things were going bad, witchcraft was suspected. But who was the witch? They had to find the witch. A shaman chose a child, put him in something like a hypnotic spell and set him loose in the village. The child would wander about in a trance then suddenly grab the leg of a horrified adult. The child had found the witch. A very ugly death followed. The McMartin Pre-School Trial seem to unroll the same way. No matter how crazy and extreme the children’s claims were, they were almost universally believed. It was 1983, the beginning of the Reagan years, and it was like we were being plunged into primitive superstition. Scarcely a rational word was heard for weeks after that. And it spread across the country, reaching its apogee in Kern County where law enforcement degenerated into medievalism. Dozens of people jailed for what used to be called witchcraft. The trials and prosecution were terrifying. There was no escape. No one lifted a finger to help. And when, years later, every case was eventually thrown out of court and the innocents released, not an apology was given. Irrationality means never having to say you’re sorry.
Which is what I find so fundamentally disturbing about the fear of clowns. You see, it makes no sense whatsoever. It is irrational as you can possibly be. In England people seeing clowns entertain have had break downs. They literally had to be hospitalized. Why? Because they saw a clown. But why? Because clowns are scary. But why are clowns scary? Because they are. That’s always the answer, because they are. And that’s irrationality. And irrationality is catching. Its spreads between people, and it spreads within the mind. Once you have opened yourself up to the hysterical fear of a guy in clown make up, a fear that has no logical basis whatsoever, then you have opened yourself up to all kinds of hysteria. And hysteria is only harmless for a little while. It can turn into hate really fast. The McMartin case came out of nowhere and set off a national obsession that destroyed lives. When irrationality goes viral somebody’s gonna get hurt. And that’s what creeps me out about the impassioned defenses you see and hear about the fear of clowns. They make no sense. None whatsoever. And they are too edgy to be funny. These people are genuinely scared. The more they think about clowns, the more intense they become. Imagine them in a mob. That seems so absurd. For now anyway. But you’ve seen this clown fear thing growing. Fast. Imagine it keeps growing. What if people are still freaked out by clowns a generation from now. Where does it stop? How do you stop it? How do you try to reason with something that makes no sense whatsoever? Will a bizarre fear of clowns morph into a bizarre fear of anything else? Anyone else? What happens to hysterias in a social media world? Where do they stop? Who is next? Is it all harmless? Or does it morph from kinky Woody Allen monologues into Kern County trying teachers for satanic child abuse? Freud meets the Old Testament and justice goes out the window. When irrational minds harden they can be terrifying. And that was before the social media. We have yet to see how the internet affects all of this, though without the internet very few of you would see a picture of Bozo and think private awful thoughts.
It’s strange how many cynical, agnostic, skeptical, intelligent people profess to being freaked out by clowns. The Satanic preschool stories of the eighties were believed by the gullible, by bigots, by those who had tossed rationality out the window when they’d become reborn Christians. But this fear of clowns thing, it afflicts the hip and sophisticated. The people you would think would know better. But maybe they miss the irrational fears the rest of the public enjoys. They may not believe in demons or ghosts or Satan, but they believe in clowns.
Emmett Kelly scaring the hell out of you.