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A Psychologist Explains Why We Find Clowns So Creepy

While clowns can make us laugh and give joy to young children, there is also something inherently disturbing about them. Now a psychologist has found the answer to why we find clowns so creepy.

A Brief History of Clowns

Clowns are known for making us laugh through physical comedy and humorous costumes. They go back to the Middle Ages where they appeared as court jesters. 

In modern times, clowns are most associated with circus performances, where they don colorful wigs, big red noses, white face paint, and comical clothing, which includes oversized shoes.

A Turn to the Dark Side

Beginning in 1940, our modern archetype of the evil clown became popularized by the character of “the Joker” in DC comics.

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In 1986, Stephen King furthered the concept with the character Pennywise, from his horror novel It, and subsequent films.

Then there’s serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Gacy was known as “the killer clown.” Before the discovery of his crimes, he performed as “Pogo the Clown.” Gacy was arrested in 1978, with crimes going back to the 1960s. He was executed by lethal injection in 1994.

Why Do We Find Clowns so Creepy? A Psychologist Explains Why…

We can understand why certain fictional characters such as monsters, vampires, werewolves, and zombies frighten us. These characters are designed from the start to scare us. 

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But why do clowns creep us out so much? Clowns are supposed to make us laugh. That is literally their job.

Psychologist Trevor A. Foulk Ph.D. has done the research and provided us with a possible answer.

Foulk points to research that was conducted to understand how humans interact with artificial intelligence and machines. The study uncovered a phenomenon it calls the “Uncanny Valley.”

The Uncanny Valley

“What the Uncanny Valley tells us is that there is a positive linear relationship between how human-like something is, and how comfortable we are interacting with it,” Foulk wrote in Psychology Today. “So, we find it more comfortable to interact with a lifelike cartoon character than we do with a stick figure because a lifelike cartoon is more human-like than a stick figure.”

“Similarly, we find it more comfortable to interact with a real human than we do a lifelike cartoon character, for the same reason,” Foulk continued. “Essentially, the more human-like something is, the more we like interacting with it — with an important exception.”

“And, this can help explain why we find certain Halloween characters, like clowns and zombies, so downright creepy!” Foulk added. “Clowns, for example, are nearly human-like, but because of their face paint, and in some cases the way they move and talk, they often seem not quite human.”

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“In short, research on human-machine interactions has documented the phenomenon of the Uncanny Valley, which describes how we are uncomfortable interacting with entities that are nearly human but not quite,” Foulk concludes. “We’re actually more comfortable interacting with entities that are less human-like, because they don’t trigger our expectations that the entity should look and act like a real human. This phenomenon can help us understand why we find clowns and zombies so creepy because they are pretty close to human, but not quite.”