Don't send in the clowns – we're too scared | Laura Barton

A Northampton DIY clown has caused a social media stir. But what lies beneath the outlandish makeup and enforced fun?

In December 1992, the Fox network broadcast a particularly memorable episode of The Simpsons. It recalled the time Bart, then still a toddler, was to be promoted from the crib of babyhood to a proper bed. Finding his young son resistant to this move, Homer constructed a special bed inspired by Bart's affection for Krusty the Clown. Alas, Homer's bed-building skills left much to be desired, and the clown of Bart's new bedroom was a grotesque, maniacal interpretation of Krusty. Unable to sleep, young Bart spent much of the next day curled in the living room uttering the troubling catchphrase: "Can't sleep, clown will eat me."

I was reminded of those words when I heard about Northampton's clown mystery. "A spooky clown has been scaring Northampton residents in full costume and makeup," reported the Northampton Herald & Post. "According to reports it has knocked on someone's door and offered to paint their sills despite having no painting equipment." The clown has quickly acquired its own dedicated Facebook page and a fevered Twitter discussion has ensued. By Sunday evening a photo of the clown itself had emerged, showing the mysterious figure in gaudy makeup, carrying a bunch of bright balloons.

A person dressed in any costume roaming the streets of Northampton and offering to perform DIY tasks would be fairly chilling, but someone in full clown regalia carries a particularly sinister air; clowns are, by common modern consent, really rather scary.

Coulrophobia, the little-studied, statistically uncharted fear of clowns, is a phobia I suspect many can relate to. I feel decidedly uneasy in the presence of clowns, though I am uncertain whether it is their blank, crayon faces or my deep dislike of Enforced Fun (see also: theme parks, slapstick, Rentaghost) that makes me recoil. The only reason for this I can think of is that fundamentally I do not find clowns funny. I also, like many people, find them a bit scary.

Whether spawned by Stephen King's IT or a deep-rooted suspicion of Ronald McDonald, there is something just a little sinister about clowns; something vexing not just in that marriage of pale face, bulbous nose, vacant eyes and wild hair, but in the outlandish behaviour and all the hard, determined jape of clownery.

In light of this, a recent scheme in Finland seems just a touch peculiar. The Vamos Project, which aims to help those aged 16 to 29 and at risk of social exclusion, has adopted a programme of circotherapy, teaching young people circus skills such as acrobatics, juggling and – crucially – clowning.And they are not alone: the UK charity Theodora's Children's Trust is one of many international groups that employs "laughter therapists", "giggle doctors" or simply clowns, to visit children in hospital.

The aim of such projects is to encourage the happiness they feel clowns might bring to the ill and dispirited. However, a study conducted by the University of Sheffield and published in the Nursing Standard in 2008, spoke to 250 children aged four to 16 and found that most of them regarded clowns as scary. "We found that clowns are universally disliked by children," said Dr Penny Curtis, one of the Sheffield researchers.

A response in the Hospital Clown Newsletter at the time disputed the idea that clowns are so broadly deemed to be terrifying, but also encouraged fellow clowns to practically address such fears: "One website I found said this type of phobia is also a kind of fear of people in disguise. Another said it was a fear of a fixed smile like the joker," wrote Shobi Dobi. "So I've experimented with this. When I get an 'almost afraid' look from a child, I put my face in motion. You can almost see the child thinking 'Oh, a human being'. Try it and let me know what happens."

Indeed, much of the fear appears to be rooted in the unsettling exaggeration of facial features provided by the clown's makeup. Coupled with the clown's unpredictable behaviour – they veer wildly and willingly from normal social behaviour in a way that might be anarchic or rebellious, but could also be malevolent or a sign of madness. Some may find themselves made disoriented and uncomfortable by the fact they cannot tell who they are or what they are going to do; all of the usual social indicators are topsy-turvy.

Earlier this year Linda Rodriguez McRobbie wrote The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary for Smithsonian Magazine, in which she investigated the effect of clowns from Grimaldi and Pierrot to Bozo, Gacy and beyond. "I think at the end of the day, a lot of the fear of clowns actually comes back to the person underneath the makeup," she says. "And I think that's something that I saw quite a lot in every point in history, where there was someone who was tragic under their makeup, sinister under their makeup, sadistic under their makeup, and murderous under their makeup. That if the person under the makeup is themselves scary, then the clown's going to be scary." Scary, and if Bart is to be believed, just a little hungry.


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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