Why Are Clowns Creepy?

(Last Updated On: October 24, 2021)

You might remember a time when clowns were like… Fun and stuff? Nowadays your knee-jerk reaction to clowns is probably getting creeped out. Especially after you saw Pennywise in It or something. Also, don’t think we forgot about that weird phase in 2016 when everyone was scared of creepy clowns stalking people. When did clowns make the transition, though? Why are clowns creepy?

Also, sidebar, but can we acknowledge how difficult it is to talk about It with people? Like what are you supposed to do when someone goes “have you seen it?” Obviously that’s the point but it’s always a hurdle.

The First Evil Clowns (Also the Very First Clown)

“Evil clown” is a pretty common character archetype. We referenced Pennywise earlier, but there’s also characters like the Joker–both of which are often credited with popularizing the evil clown as a character.

But the origins of evil clowns date back farther than one might think. The first recorded normal not-evil clown was Joseph Grimaldi. He was born in 1778 to a family of entertainers in London, and was involved in theater as early as age 4. By 1806 he had joined the Covent Garden Theatre as a pantomime, where he found his greatest success. Grimaldi was known for creating the more contemporary clown character; using the white face paint and combining it with the fiendish rogue who was paradoxically a simpleton. 

Later, darker versions of the clown character would emerge as an archetype, like in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hop-Frog.” The “evil clown” as we might know wouldn’t take its more recognizable form until 1986 with Stephen King’s It. Some point to John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer who dressed as a clown. Gacy performed as Pogo the Clown–who performed at charity events and other parties. 

But clowns were never really about fun times. The essence they always captured was this kind of barely contained anarchy; something pretty clear when you think of Grimaldi’s clown. A prolific criminal that was somehow dumb. They embody chaos that’s just contained enough to be funny. Benjamin Radford traces the European convention as far back as the medieval court jesters. They were among the few who could openly make fun of the monarch without being put to death. Sometimes clowns laugh with you–but other times they laugh at you. Part of what gives clowns, jesters, and harlequins their identity is that ambiguity.

Coulrophobia

Alright, so on some level clowns were always kind of unsettling. Which makes it no surprise that 7.8% of Americans are super afraid of clowns. Another 2008 study found that kids in the UK actually don’t really like clowns at all. At base, the chaos inherent to clowns is meant to keep you on edge. You’re paying attention to a clown in part because you don’t know what they’re going to do next–and sometimes what they can do next is antagonize you. Most people like order, and if you don’t like surprises you probably don’t like clowns that much either. 

People have also studied the cognitive dissonance induced by clowns; a smile plastered onto a clown’s face feels confusing when the person underneath the makeup is frowning. Canadian psychologist Rami Nader believes this dissonance is what unnerves many about clowns; the makeup conceals both the identity and feelings of the person playing the clown character. You’ll never get as good a read on a clown as you would someone who wasn’t a clown. 


Speaking of clowns, see if you can pick out some popular ones here.

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About Kyler 584 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and has just finished his undergraduate at the University of Washington. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019 and has accumulated so much random, general knowledge he'd rather not think about it. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.