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14                        Psychology of Clowns Being Scary

                 The History and

             Psychology of Clowns

                     Being Scary

           You aren’t alone in your fear of

          makeup-clad entertainers; people
         have been frightened by clowns for


                  Smithsonian Magazine |
                 Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

        There’s a word— albeit one not recognized by
        the Oxford English Dictionary or any
        psychology manual— for the excessive fear of
        clowns: Coulrophobia.

        Not a lot of people actually suffer from a
        debilitating phobia of clowns; a lot more people,
                                                         characters who interrupted serious dance rituals changing the way he looked and acted. Before
        however, just don’t like them. Do a Google
                                                         with ludicrous antics.  Ancient Rome’s clown him, a clown may have worn make-up, but it
        search for “I hate clowns” and the first hit is  was a stock fool called the stupidus; the court was usually just a bit of rouge on the cheeks to, a forum for clown-haters that
                                                         jesters of medieval Europe were a sanctioned heighten the sense of them being florid, funny
        also offers vanity emails.      way for people under the feudal thumb to laugh drunks or rustic yokels. Grimaldi, however,
        One “I Hate Clowns” Facebook page has just
                                                         at the guys in charge; and well into the 18th and suited up in bizarre, colorful costumes, stark
        under 480,000 likes. Some circuses have held
                                                         19th century, the prevailing clown figure of white face paint punctuated by spots of bright
        workshops to help visitors get over their fear of  Western Europe and Britain was the pantomime red on his cheeks and topped with a blue
        clowns by letting them watch performers
                                                         clown, who was a sort of bumbling buffoon.       mohawk. He was a master of physical
        transform into their clown persona. In Sarasota,                                                  comedy—he leapt in the air, stood on his head,
        Florida, in 2006, communal loathing for clowns
                                                         But clowns have always had a dark side, says fought himself in hilarious fisticuffs that had
        took a criminal turn when dozens of fiberglass
                                                         David Kiser, director of talent for Ringling Bros. audiences rolling in the aisles—as well as of
        clown statues—part of a public art exhibition    and Barnum & Bailey Circus. After all, these satire lampooning the absurd fashions of the
        called "Clowning Around Town" and a nod to
                                                         were characters who reflected a funhouse mirror day, comic impressions, and ribald songs.
        the city’s history as a winter haven for traveling  back on society; academics note that their
        circuses—were defaced, their limbs broken,
                                                         comedy was often derived from their voracious But because Grimaldi was such a star, the
        heads lopped off, spray-painted; two were
                                                         appetites for food, sex, and drink, and their character he’d invented became closely
        abducted and we can only guess at their sad      manic behavior. “So in one way, the clown has associated with him.  And Grimaldi’s real life
                                                         always been an impish spirit… as he’s kind of was anything but comedy—he’d grown up with
                                                         grown up, he’s always been about fun, but part a tyrant of a stage father; he was prone to bouts
        Even the people who are supposed to like
                                                         of that fun has been a bit of mischief,” says of depression; his first wife died during
        clowns—children—supposedly don’t. In 2008, a
                                                         Kiser.                                           childbirth; his son was an alcoholic clown
        widely reported University of Sheffield,                                                          who’d drank himself to death by age 31; and
        England, survey of 250 children between the
                                                         “Mischief” is one thing; homicidal urges is Grimaldi’s physical gyrations, the leaps and
        ages of four and 16 found that most of the       certainly another. What’s changed about clowns tumbles and violent slapstick that had made him
        children disliked and even feared images of
                                                         is how that darkness is manifest, argued Andrew famous, left him in constant pain and
        clowns. The BBC’s report on the study featured
                                                         McConnell Stott, Dean of Undergraduate prematurely disabled.  As Grimaldi himself
        a child psychologist who broadly declared,       Education and an English professor at the joked, “I am GRIM ALL DAY, but I make you
        “Very few children like clowns.  They are
                                                         University of Buffalo, SUNY.                     laugh at night.”  That Grimaldi could make a
        unfamiliar and come from a different era. They                                                    joke about it highlights how well known his
        don't look funny, they just look odd.”
                                                         Stott is the author of several articles on scary tragic real life was to his audiences.
                                                         clowns and comedy, as well as The Pantomime
        But most clowns aren’t trying to be odd. They’re  Life of Joseph Grimaldi, a much-lauded 2009 Enter the young Charles Dickens.  After
        trying to be silly and sweet, fun personified. So
                                                         biography of the famous comic pantomime Grimaldi died penniless and an alcoholic in
        the question is, when did the clown, supposedly  player on the Regency London stage. Grimaldi 1837 (the coroner’s verdict: “Died by the
        a jolly figure of innocuous, kid-friendly
                                                         was the first recognizable ancestor of the visitation of God”), Dickens was charged with
        entertainment, become so weighed down by fear
                                                         modern clown, sort of the Homo erectus of editing Grimaldi’s memoirs. Dickens had
        and sadness? When did clowns become so dark?     clown evolution. He’s the reason why clowns already hit upon the dissipated, drunken clown
                                                         are still sometimes called “Joeys”; though his theme in his 1836 The Pickwick Papers. In the
        Maybe they always have been.                     clowning was of a theatrical and not circus serialized novel, he describes an off-duty
                                                         tradition, Grimaldi is so identified with modern clown—reportedly inspired by Grimaldi’s son—
        Clowns, as pranksters, jesters, jokers,
                                                         clowns that a church in east London has whose inebriation and ghastly, wasted body
        harlequins, and mythologized tricksters have     conducted a Sunday service in his honor every contrasted with his white face paint and clown
        been around for ages.  They appear in most
                                                         year since 1959, with congregants all dressed in costume. Unsurprisingly, Dickens’ version of
        cultures—Pygmy clowns made Egyptian              full clown regalia.                              Grimadli’s life was, well, Dickensian, and, Stott
        pharaohs laugh in 2500 BCE; in ancient imperial
                                                                                                          says, imposed a “strict economy”: For every
        China, a court clown called  YuSze was,
                                                         In his day, he was hugely visible: It was claimed laugh he wrought from his audiences, Grimaldi
        according to the lore, the only guy who could    that a full eighth of London’s population had suffered commensurate pain.
        poke holes in Emperor Qin Shih Huang’s plan to
                                                         seen Grimaldi on stage. Grimaldi made the
        paint the Great  Wall of China; Hopi Native      clown the leading character of the pantomime,                           (Continued on Page 15)
        Americans had a tradition of clown-like
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