The Idiots Guide to Everything: Clowns and Why We’re So Afraid

Posted on August 21, 2013


I guess I’d never thought about it, but a fear of clowns is known as Coulrophobia. The term itself is fairly new, having never appeared in published dictionary prior to the advent of the internet. It is believed the name comes from an ancient Greek word for ‘stilt-walker’, but what do I know. Clown fear itself is a fairly modern phenomenon, reaching its peak in the 1980s. Since then the issue has been exacerbated hugely by media, films in particular, and our own thrilling imaginations. Recent research even suggests that clowns are possibly universally despised by children. Why could this be?

Clowns have been around since the beginning of time. I can’t confirm that due to not being around from the beginning of time myself, but there we go. They’ve been around for a bloody long time, thats for sure, and they’ve always held a position slightly outside of society. Heck, that was the whole point of them in the first place. Jesters and fools were purely for entertainment, given permission to go beyond what was considered decent and to represent the deviant side of human nature. This meant subverting social norms in very strict societies, especially when it came to the rulers, the gods and the subject of sex. As the centuries passed, the Jester would become a far more sinister figure, one with dastardly intentions. By the advent of the 20th century, tramp and hobo clowns became the most visible versions in the US. These were down on their luck types, existing on the fringes of society, in its seedy underbelly.

Possibly the most famous, and certainly the first to gain any notoriety, was Weary Willie. The story of Weary Willie is one that covers three generations of the Kelly family, starting with Emmett Lee Kelly senior. He would become a major attraction at circuses, attempting to sweep away the spotlight. His son would carry on the character despite the disagreement of his father, a decision that would lead to them being estranged for many years. Emmett junior’s son, Paul Kelly, would be the third and final version of Weary Willie. He lost a leg in a train accident when nine, something that would lead to many years of drug abuse and sexual promiscuity. This would lead to him committing a couple of murders, where he would list ‘Willie’ as an accomplice. As with his grandfather and father, the Weary Willie character took over Kelly, becoming a dominant personality. The murderous clown idea would then be exacerbated with the case of John Wayne Gacy in the 1980s.

This was when a fear of clowns took off. Stephen King would famously tap into this new horror with the character Pennywise in his book ‘It’. Despite taking on the form of the greatest fear of an individual, it would form into Pennywise the clown when viewed by multiple people, as this was considered the lowest common denominator of fear. Ever since, the dastardly nature of clowns has almost been assumed, and they now form a major part of any Hallowe’en party. 

It’s quite easy to understand really. Throughout their entire history, clowns have represented our more unacceptable side, being an uncomfortable mirror held up to the ethics and value of what we would consider decent. They were characters who subverted social norms. The evolution of the jester took this many steps further, embedding clowns as figures of deceit on the margins of decency. The fact that they are grotesquely painted certainly doesn’t help, especially when viewed by young children. Kids have throughout history shown to be very reactive to familiar body shapes topped off with unusual faces, and not many things embody this more than the clown. 

Plus, they’re pretty dumb really.