When Did Halloween Clowns Get So Scary?

Do you have coulrophobia? When did clowns get so scary?


A phobia is a fear or anxiety that inhibits a person’s life. Coulrophobia is an extreme or irrational phobia of clowns.  As you might already know, clowns have become one of the most common fears ever. Why is that? 

“We develop fears from what we read and see in the media… There are lots of examples of nasty clowns in movies that potentially puts on that kind of fear,” says Dr. Martin Antony, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto. Even the people who are supposed to like clowns—children—often don’t because they don’t really see clowns in safe, fun contexts anymore.

Of course, it’s difficult to say whether there has been a real rise in the number of people who have clown phobias since John Wayne Gacy was a registered clown who entertained at community events under the name “Pogo the Clown.” But, between 1972 and 1978, he assaulted and killed more than 35 young men in the Chicago area and was found guilty, then brought to prison. Bizarrely, in prison, Gacy painted many images of clowns and some self-portraits of himself as Pogo. He’d become identified as the “Killer Clown,” a handy sobriquet for newspaper reports that hinged on the unexpectedness of his killing.

Gacy is often said to be the inspiration for Pennywise in Stephen King’s 1986 horror novel It. When this eerie Stephen King novel about a scary, supernatural clown who lurks around the suburbs and murders children came out as a TV movie starring Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, it helped make Americans paranoid that one could lurk outside their doors. King didn’t invent the evil clown, but he may have helped this idea.

Another reason people are afraid of clowns is that they don’t actually look human. The big fake smile, the giant red nose, the melting white face, the enormous feet… it is difficult to look at a clown without wondering what was going on underneath. But most clowns aren’t trying to be odd, they’re just trying to be silly and sweet, fun-personified. So the question is, when did clowns become so dark? Didn’t they use to be happy and cheerful?

Well, not exactly. For Joseph Grimaldi, a clown-like performer in the early 1800s and the first recognizable ancestor of the modern clown, real life was anything but comedy—he’d grown up with a tyrant of a stage father; he was prone to bouts of depression; his first wife died during childbirth; his son was an alcoholic clown who’d drunk himself to death by age 31, and Grimaldi’s physical gyrations, the leaps and tumbles and violent slapstick that had made him famous, left him in constant pain and prematurely disabled. As Grimaldi himself joked, “I am GRIM ALL DAY, but I make you laugh at night.” That Grimaldi could make a joke about it highlights how well known his tragic real life was to his audiences.

Beginning in August 2016, creepy clown sightings spread across the U.S. and other countries, creating a viral clown panic everywhere. During the last election time, there was a giant outbreak of “clown sightings.” There were so many people all over the world talking about and reporting clown sightings around their towns. They saw people dressed up in clown costumes around where they live, doing strange and terrifying things. This made coulrophobia in the USA and in the world rise. They are back this year… but is it all just a hoax?

Some information from the Smithsonian Magazine.