Graeme Maclean/Creative Commons                                Graeme Maclean/Creative Commons

Graeme Maclean/Creative Commons Graeme Maclean/Creative Commons

Those afraid of clowns brace for new ‘It’ movie

Coulrophobia sufferers get prepared ahead of Stephen King remake

While Jaclyn Andrews can’t rationally explain her fear of clowns, she’s been avoiding them for years.

Walking the midway at local fairs is totally out of the question, and lately she’s considered double checking with fellow parents before attending kids’ birthday parties.

She realizes that might sound a little silly to some, but the clowns that haunted her nightmares as a young girl still evoke bad feelings.

“I’m panicked, can’t breathe, sweaty,” says Andrews, 35, describing how she feels when she sees a clown.

“I get the overwhelming need to get out — and now.”

The fear of clowns, known as coulrophobia, is a relatively new phenomenon with very little research behind it. And while it’s not considered an official phobia by the World Health Organization, its sufferers say the experience is very real.

Andrews, a resident of Hamilton, feels anxious thinking about the days ahead when evil clowns will be a focal point of popular culture and practically impossible to avoid.

A remake of Stephen King’s “It” arrives in theatres next week and is expected to draw huge audiences intrigued by the titular shapeshifter, also known as Pennywise, who often takes the form of a clown.

And the upcoming sixth season of “American Horror Story,” which begins airing Tuesday on FX Canada, is generating buzz for the return of Twisty, a demented clown with a taste for trickery and murder.

Clowns have existed since ancient Egypt, although their trademark white faces and colourful costumes weren’t established until the early 1800s when British entertainer Joseph Grimaldi began playing Joey the Clown. A similar look was adopted by Scottish businessman John Bill Ricketts when he brought the modern circus to the United States a few years later.

For many decades the happy-go-lucky personas of modern clowns like Bozo and Ronald McDonald seemed in style, but a notorious American serial killer is considered to be the inspiration for the advent of the more sinister brand of clowns.

Before he was convicted for the murders of 33 young men in 1980, John Wayne Gacy seemed like a relatively average guy, who sometimes dressed as Pogo the Clown, a character he created while volunteering at children’s hospitals. After he was jailed, Gacy painted portraits of himself in clown costume and the artwork became the focus of exhibitions — and protests.

“People learn to be afraid from the movies they see, and from the news they read — watching other people be afraid,” said Martin Antony, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University.

“Gacy may have triggered certain directors and writers to portray clowns in that way, and that may have exacerbated fear of clowns.”

Two years after Gacy’s conviction, the film “Poltergeist” featured a scene in which a young boy is dragged under his bed by a toy clown brought to life in the middle of the night. And King’s novel “It” was released in 1986 and adapted for TV in 1990, with Tim Curry playing the creepy Pennywise.

Andrews swears watching the “It” miniseries in middle school scarred her for life, especially moments like its opening scene in which a young boy is lured by the killer clown to a sewer.

”(‘It’) just did it in for me,” she says.

The fascination with vicious clowns only grew as “It” became a favourite at video stores during the 1990s and other forgotten films like 1988’s “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” found another life on DVD alongside the clown-like doll used by serial killer Jigsaw in the “Saw” horror movies.

Much to the dismay of professional clown performers, those portrayals helped take the wholesomeness out of a character once considered a fixture of family entertainment.

Rami Nader, a psychologist at the North Shore Stress and Anxiety Clinic in Vancouver, says some people are leery of clowns because they fear their exaggerated painted smiles obscure their true emotions, which makes them unpredictable.

“You don’t know really what they’re feeling, what they’re thinking or what they’re going to do,” Nader says.

A spate of creepy-clown sightings reported across North America last year didn’t help their negative perception. Perhaps inspired by popular prank videos on YouTube, reports of individuals wandering through neighbourhoods while wearing menacing clown masks began to spread. In the U.S., Target stopped selling scary clown masks as a result.

Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Illinois, says he learned how deeply opinions of clowns have eroded after his study of “creepiest occupations.”

The online survey, which canvassed 1,341 people, found respondents were bothered by people whose jobs held ambiguous threats, and in particular individuals who made physical contact or exhibited “non-normative, non-verbal behaviour.”

Clowns ranked as the creepiest, worse than taxidermists, sex shop owners and funeral directors.

McAndrew says he found the ambiguity of a clown’s performance art seemed to rattle the respondents the most.

“(They said), ‘We don’t know if there’s something to be afraid of, but we have a paralysis about not knowing whether we should be scared,’” he said.

The professor also discovered some members of the clown community weren’t exactly helping rebuild their reputation as non-threatening. After his study was published, McAndrew said some clowns began to “stalk” him on social media and called the president of his college in an attempt to get him fired.

But McAndrew also found that discussions about his findings online revealed a stark apathy from even those who aren’t afraid of clowns.

“I don’t recall seeing anybody ever saying, ‘You know, I really like clowns,’” he added.

David Friend, The Canadian Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Lisa Batstone’s appeal of her conviction and sentence for the killing of her eight-year-old daughter is set for Jan. 12, 2021. (File photos)
South Surrey mother’s murder-appeal date set

Lisa Batstone is appealing her conviction and sentence in death of eight-year-old daughter

A heavy police presence was on scene on Dec. 28, 2017 following the shooting death on Bates Road in Abbotsford of Alexander Blanarou, 24, of Surrey. (Abbotsford News file photo)
Three men charged with Abbotsford shooting death of Surrey man

Alexander Blanarou, 24, was killed in a rural area on Dec. 28, 2017

A criminal trial for Robert Boule (inset), the owner of the Smuggler’s Inn, is to begin in August 2021, following a failed application to strike down immigration-act provisions that he is charged under. (Photo courtesy of The Northern Light newspaper)
Blaine inn owner’s challenge of immigration act fails

Robert Boule’s trial on human-smuggling charges set to begin August 2021

A tongue-in-cheek message about wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 on a sign outside a church near Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection count climbs back up to 656

20 more people in hospital, active cases still rising

A man stands in the window of an upper floor condo in Vancouver on March 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Change made to insurance for B.C. condo owners amid rising premiums

Council CEO Janet Sinclair says the change will mean less price volatility

Google Maps screenshot taken at 7:14 a.m.
Westbound Highway 1 lanes in Abbotsford closed as crews investigate serious cash

Crash occurred between McCallum and Riverside roads at around 4 a.m., next update at 8 a.m.

The Walking Curriculum gets students outside and connecting with nature. (Amanda Peterson/Special to S.F. Examiner)
‘Walking Curriculum’ crafted by SFU professor surges in popularity

The outdoor curriculum encourages students to connect with the natural world

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Mirandy Tracy, left, and Tara Kurtz are two Langley mothers who are organizing a "sick out" for Tuesday, Dec. 1 to protest COVID conditions in schools. They're calling for masks and smaller class sizes, among other things. (Matthew Claxton/Langley Advance Times)
Politician, labour leader throw support behind student Sick Out day

Langley parents started the movement to keep kids home on Dec. 1 as a protest

A family emerged with a purchase at the Tannenbaum Tree Farm at 5398 252 St in Aldergrove on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020 (Dan Ferguson/Langley Advance Times)
Christmas tree season is off to an early start

People are ‘bored’ with staying home due to COVID-19 and want to decorate early, farm owner believes

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
B.C. researchers launch study to test kids, young adults for COVID-19 antibodies

Kids and youth can often be asymptomatic carriers of the novel coronavirus

Most Read