With the holiday of Halloween fast approaching, and the associated spooky atmosphere which comes with it, students were asked why clowns, made infamous by media, were inherently scary. They answered clowns have become “inhuman” by appearing so inviting and colorful, while at the same time being terrifying in a different context.
In a 2016 poll conducted by Vox with Morning Consult, 42 percent of Americans reported they were, in some capacity, afraid of clowns. This was likely due to the “Clown Scare” which occurred during in October of 2016, with over 100 “killer clown” sightings in the United States alone.
Ephraim Insigne, a senior from the Philippines majoring in accounting, recalled a moment during his childhood where he watched an episode of Batman where the Joker infected fish to look like himself, smiles and all.
“The fish looked so creepy, and the corpses the Joker left always had this creepy smile, so, as a kid, that episode always terrified me. I could never watch it straight, and since then, I've had this uneasiness towards clowns.
“It's the smiles. I'm not as uneasy with them now, but there's the concept of the silent clown that scares me. I don't quite like the combination of the smile and the silence.”
Ethan Hopkin, a sophomore and TESOL major from Ohio, referenced the 2016 “Clown Scare,” which saw hundreds of “evil clown” sightings in the United States and throughout the world. In October of 2016, there were several arrests in his hometown of Cincinnati related to threats from people dressed as clowns.
“I personally don't find them too frightening, but they do have ghostly white faces and are made to have features similar to many monsters, such as bugging eyes, large blood-red mouths, cackling laughter, etc,” Hopkin said. “They can also hide their identities really easily, and threaten whoever they want to threaten, kind of like trolls on social media.”
According to Coulrophobiafacts.com, “The clown wears a colorful makeup to deconstruct the facial features to create a new identity. And clowns can also break social norms, their mask makes them able to do things that others can’t do socially, like interacting with unknown people at ease.”
Kayli Whiting, a freshman from the Dominican Republic majoring in psychology, spoke about how the appearance of clowns was unsettling. “Clowns are supposed to be these happy, energetic, and light-hearted personalities, but then you look closer at the clowns, and there’s something so off about the way they move and laugh. It’s inhuman, and makes something which should entertain kids horrifying.”
The Uncanny Valley
In an article by The Guardian by Dean Burnett, a doctor of neuroscience said, “Humans are very sensitive to body shape, and movement. We subconsciously glean an incredible amount of information just from the way someone walks. Posture, stance, gait [manner of walking], we’re sensitive to all this.
“Again, clowns throw all this out of whack, with their exaggerated tumbling and oversized shows. Combine all this with the incredible human sensitivity to faces and clowns often end up being upsetting just by their existence.”
Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist, pioneered innovations in researching human responses to non-human entities, such as artificial intelligence. He was known for identifying the term “uncanny valley.” In an article published in 1970 about robots, Mori theorized if robots were to become more human-like, they would look more familiar until their subtle imperfections make them look eerie.
Examples of the uncanny valley include actroids, robotic figures with the appearance of humans, but a lack of subtle movement in the eyes and obvious rubbery skin, making them look human, but on closer inspection, not human enough.
Insigne explained further, “The uncanny valley is such a big part of what makes clowns scary. Something looks so real and so human, but not quite human enough. It’s twisted and weird and inhuman, something that’s supposed to be happy and fun, [but] instead looks terrifying. There are movies, like ‘The Polar Express,’ where the characters have all the right human proportions, but their eyes don’t blink at the right time, their faces don’t twitch, and their skin doesn’t wrinkle as skin should.
“As far as clowns are concerned, they take the uncanny valley to an extreme, with smiles which look impossible. It’s something we don’t see every day, and even just movies and other media have made clowns out to be monsters. So I feel that villains like the Joker and even Pennywise, the clown from the “It” book and movie, have made people more afraid of clowns since, in those stories, the clowns kill people for fun.”