This Is Why Everyone Hates Clowns

This study has one good reason why we find them so damn creepy

It Chapter Two
There's a good reason we're creeped out by Pennywise
Warner Bros.
By Kirk Miller / September 6, 2019 11:22 am

Pennywise returns this weekend in IT Chapter Two, a three-hour killer clown flick that plays upon our fears of everyone’s least favorite circus performers.

But why do we find clowns to be so creepy?

Over at Quartz, Knox College Professor of Psychology Frank T. McAndrew discussed why we find clowns so off-putting, based on both his own studies and other research — including one report that suggested decorating children’s wings in hospitals with pictures of clowns was detrimental because “clowns are universally disliked by children.”

He starts with history. Noting that “clown-like characters” have been around for centuries as jesters and a way to poke fun at powerful people, the word “clown” started showing up in Shakespeare plays in the 1500s and circus clowns debuted in the 19th century.

Public opinion on modern-day clowns may have started to turn around the time serial killer (and part-time clown) John Wayne Gacy was captured in the ’70s. More recent clown incidents include a rash of “phantom clowns” that started terrorizing towns since 1981. Pop culture, too, is littered with killer clown imagery, from Pennywise to the Joker to Poltergeist.

But Prof. McAndrew points out our feelings on clowns really come down to ambiguity, or “not really being sure how to react to a person or situation.” He cites a study he conducted with 1341 volunteers answering an online survey about creepiness, based on behaviors, physical characteristics, occupations and hobbies.

The results? Being male, unpredictable and having unusual patterns of eye contact and other “nonverbal behaviors” coincided with high creepiness levels. As well, “clown phobias are fueled by the fact that clowns wear makeup and disguises that hide their true identities and feelings,” as he notes.

In other words, if you want to relax or sleep well, don’t send in the clowns.

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