Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

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By Bruce “Charlie” Johnson

 Coulrophobia is a fear of clowns.  The general public has become increasingly aware of this fear in recent years.  I believe the word coulrophobia has existed for less than twenty years.  I don’t know if there is increased incidence of fear of clowns or if there is just an increased perception of its existence.  I first encountered an adult who was afraid of clowns early in my career in the mid-1970s. 

 Coulrophobia can range from a mild discomfort when confronted by an actual clown to terror of clowns in the abstract.  One day I was picking up some promotional material at a printer.  I was in street clothes, not in make up and costume.  When I introduced myself to the clerk, he said, “Oh, you are the clown.”  The woman behind me in line gasped, and asked, “Are you a clown?”  When I responded that was my profession she said, “Oh, I’m afraid of clowns.”  Then she got out of line and went to the other side of the store and stood looking at the wall until I had left.  I did not look like a clown, but just the knowledge that I sometimes appeared as a clown, was enough to terrorize her so that she could not look at me.

 Through the years I have talked with many adults who are afraid of clowns.  Some of them thought they understood what caused their fear.  Others did not know what caused it.  Here are some conclusions that I have drawn.

 Natural Fear

 Children around the age of two and three are uncertain around anything unusual that they don’t understand.  At that age they are uncomfortable around fantasy characters like Santa Claus and clowns.  Children who love watching Mickey Mouse on television can become terrified when suddenly confronted by a five-foot tall Mickey Mouse at one of the Disney amusement parks.  They do not know what the character will do which causes discomfort.  (Some adults say the unpredictability of a clown’s actions is one of the things that make them uncomfortable.)   If the child is allowed to watch the character from a distance and then approach as they understand the character is not a threat they frequently overcome their uneasiness, relax, and enjoy interacting with the character.

 Some clowns claim that a certain type of make up design is less frightening to children of this age.  However, that is not true.  Anything that the child finds unusual can be frightening.  I have seen children afraid of an entertainer wearing only a red nose and no other make up.  I have seen children quickly warm up to a clown with a make up design that I thought they would consider scary.  The most beloved clown in the Seattle area is one who goes against all of the common advice for making your make up less scary.

 The majority of my performances are as a non-verbal character.  I discovered that sometimes children of this age found my silence frightening because they had never experienced somebody who did not speak.  In that circumstance I would always break character, kneel down, speak to them, and then once they were reassured I would return to my non-verbal performance style.

 Children normally outgrow this natural fear unless something happens that traumatizes them at this stage of their development.  It can be an encounter with an untrained clown who does not allow them to become comfortable with them from a distance.  It can be a parent who thrusts a terrified child into Santa’s lap for a Christmas picture.  It can be an encounter with somebody costumed for Halloween.  Any of these kinds of trauma can lock them into a fear of costumed characters which is expressed most often as a fear of clowns.  Frequently the person suffering from this cause of coulrophobia will say they don’t like clowns because they can’t tell who is hidden behind the make up.

 Media Portrayals

It is amazing the number of people that I have met who trace their fear of clowns back to watching Steven King’s "It", a horror film in which a murderous monster has the appearance of a clown.  That movie was originally a television miniseries.  I performed a preschool show the morning after the first half was aired.  When I arrived, the preschool director told me that there were five children who did not want to see my show because they had watched “It” the night before.  I could not imagine parents letting their young children stay up until 11 PM to watch what was advertised as a horror movie.

Other negative movie portrayals of clowns have also contributed to coulrophobia.  One adult told me the clown doll in “Poltergeist” caused them to be afraid of clowns.  I have talked to other people who have referred to the clowns who were mean to the little elephant in the Disney film “Dumbo.”  Film makers like the irony of somebody who is supposed to bring happiness being a source of pain.  This can be traced back to “He Who Gets Slapped”, a silent film movie starring Lon Chaney Sr. that was released in 1920.  In this film, Chaney played a clown who fell in love with a lovely equestrienne who in turn was in love with a sadistic lion trainer.  The clown kills his rival to protect her.  In the 1940 film “The Fat Man”, Emmett Kelly Sr. played a murderer that uses his stolen funds to buy a circus where he hides out as a clown.  A year later, in “The Greatest Show On Earth”, Jimmy Stewart plays a doctor guilty of a mercy killing hiding out as a clown with the circus.

(Clowns are not the only victims of negative media portrayals.  I talked to a woman who traces her fear of dentists to the sadistic dentist played by Steve Martin in the movie “Little Shop of Horrors”.  The same film had a masochist character who went to dentists because he enjoyed the pain they cause. )

Real life killer

 The media image of a killer clown was reality in one case, John Wayne Gacey.  Many people refer to him when explaining why they don’t like clowns.  There have been many other serial killers with other professions and hobbies, but because of the irony involved people remember that Gacey was a clown.  The true crime book written about him is titled Killer Clown.

 The reality is that of the millions of people who have performed as clowns over the years, only one of them was a serial killer.  The majority of clowns really do cause enjoyment. 

Clowns used as Bogeyman

 One day when I was performing as a clown at the Raging Waters amusement park, I heard a woman behind me say, “See that clown over there, if you don’t behave I’m going to ask him to come over and stomp on you with his big feet.”  I knew that if I had turned around it would have immediately traumatized the child she was talking to, so I just exited the area.

 Unfortunately, that is not as rare an occurrence as you might think.  I talked to one man who remembered misbehaving in a grocery store when they turned a corner and saw an actual dwarf.  His mother said, “See that man.  If you don’t obey me you are going to turn out like him.”  The next time that boy saw a dwarf was one performing as a clown in a circus.  His fear of dwarves became generalized into a fear of clowns.

 Using clowns as bogeymen is formalized in some cultures.  At the Southeast Asian Museum in Singapore I saw masks of clown characters.  The information accompanying the masks said they were used by entertainers to create laughter during religious ceremonies, but that mothers also used the masks to discipline their children by warning them that the clowns carried away children who misbehaved. 

 The Potlatch was an important event in the cultural and political life of the Pacific Northwest tribes.  At the Potlatch a person wearing a Nukmuhl mask (Big Nose) doubled as a clown providing comedy and as the Sergeant of Arms.  The host of the Potlatch would sometimes hire somebody to misbehave slightly so the clown could demonstrate the penalty for violating the rules of a potlatch.  The discipline might be mild like a child being forced to sit alone in the center where everyone could see their shame.  More severe discipline like beating an adult with a paddle might be administered by Nukmuhl.

 Learned Behavior

 Children often lean to be afraid of the same things their parents are afraid of.  I know a woman who has a phobia about bees.  Her father had a valid fear of bees because he was allergic to them so a sting could be life threatening.  Bees were harmless to her because she was not allergic to them.  She had learned to be afraid of bees from her father.  Since it was instilled in her as an impressionable child, her fear was much stronger than her father’s fear of bees.

 Some children who were frightened by watching “It” have grown into adults and passed their fear along to their children who have not had any traumatic experience with clown characters.

 The increased media attention to coulrophobia may also contribute to its spread.  It makes people aware that others are afraid of clowns so maybe there is a reason to fear them.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

 Social Status

In some groups it is considered hip to dislike clowns.  Although they are not actually afraid of clowns they may state that they are.  I believe that this faked fear of clowns has helped create the perception that it is much more common is true.

Other Causes

By definition a phobia is an irrational fear.  There does not have to be a rational cause or explanation.  Some people develop coulrophobia without anybody being able to discover the cause.


 Coulrophobia may be irrational, but it is a very real fear, except where social status is the cause.  The person affected by it must be respected.  They can not be teased or debated out of their fear.

  As in other types of phobias one cure is gradually increased exposure.  A first step might be looking at photos of clowns until you feel comfortable looking at them.  The next step may be watching a performance of a clown on television or watching a live performance of a clown from a distance, for example, seated in back of a theater.  Then when you feel safe watching from a distance, you arrange for a closer encounter with a clown.

 Something else that some people find reassuring is watching an entertainer make the transition from their normal appearance into their clown character.  That has helped some adults overcome their fear.  At times I have started library or preschool shows by applying my make up to help reassure some children who may still be a little uncertain of clowns.  I have heard some clowns disagree with this approach because it breaks the fantasy of the character, but my experience has been that kids love to pretend and soon willingly react as if I had always been the fantasy character.

Young children with a mild fear can overcome it by being reassured.  After a recent performance a mother approached me with two young girls.  She said, “I wasn’t sure if my daughters would like your show because they were watching the ‘Airbud’ movie which had a mean clown.”

 My response was, “Oh that was Michael Jeter playing the part of the clown.  He pretended to be mean to make the movie more exciting.  He really isn’t like that at all.  Michael plays another clown character that you may like.  He is Mr. Noodle’s brother on the Elmo’s World portion of ‘ Sesame Street ’.”

 “Oh, we love Mr. Noodle.”

 “So, when you see a clown being mean in a movie or TV show, remember that clowns really aren’t like that.  They are just pretending to be like that to make the show more exciting.”

 Both girls gave me a hug, and their mother thanked me for explaining that to them.

 My wife is a clown who visits hospitals.  She does not wear gloves.  (One reason is so she can easily wash her hands to prevent the spread of infection.)  If a young child is uncertain of her, she will explain that she is just a person and is a grandmother.  She lets the children feel her bare hands to confirm that she is somebody dressed up for fun.  Then they relax and enjoy her magic and comedy.


 Coulrophobia is by definition an irrational fear of clowns.  It is not caused by clowns themselves except for rare cases where an untrained person costumed as a clown has acted inappropriately for the situation.  It does not matter what caused the fear, it is real to the person who has it and affects their life.

 Professional clowns are aware audience members may be fearful, respect that, and will not force themselves upon somebody who is not prepared to enjoy their entertainment. 

 People who have developed coulrophobia can gradually overcome their fear if they want to enjoy entertaining performances where clowns may be present.

 Copyright 2009 by Bruce “Charlie” Johnson.  All rights reserved.

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