Coulrophobia is an irrational and intense fear of clowns. This term is believed to have been coined in the 1980’s and has been used more in mainstream media than in research or medical contexts. It is believed that the term was derived based on the Greek words “kolobathristes” (one who walks on stilts, such as circus performers) and “phobos” (fear).
Coulrophobia is classified as an “Other” type specific phobia within the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). This phobia is characterized by an intense or unreasonable fear that is cued by the thoughts or actual presence of clowns. A person with coulrophobia would likely have an immediate anxiety reaction (e.g., heart racing, feelings of dread, shortness of breath, sweating, hyperventilating), when exposed to a clown. In some cases, people may also have strong anxiety reactions to depictions of clowns (e.g., photos, movies, cartoons), thoughts of clowns, and conversations involving discussion of clowns. People with a fear of clowns know that their fears are excessive, but will often go out of their way to avoid clowns, including changing their routines to avoid possible contact with clowns (e.g., avoiding circuses, children’s parties, carnivals, cartoons). This avoidance, anxiety, and distress could lead to impairments in social, occupational, and/or academic functioning. It should be noted that while some people may find clowns creepy or odd, a person would only receive a clinical diagnosis of a specific phobia if clowns were present in his or her environment (e.g., clowns performed near where the person lives or works) and the level of distress or avoidance behaviors were causing impairment in their functioning.
While clowns are generally meant to be funny and are employed to entertain at circuses, parties, fairs, and carnivals, many children do find them scary and strange. Adults may also have a fear of clowns, and may avoid going to places where they may see a clown. Almost no scientific research exists on coulrophobia, and the causes of the phobia are unknown. It has been suggested that people may develop a fear of clowns based on a negative experience with a clown or after watching a movie or hearing negative things about clowns (e.g., the Stephen King movie It, serial killer Johan Wayne Gacy who was known as the “Killer Clown”). Children today may also just find clowns to be outdated and strange looking compared to earlier generations. Others have discussed how while jesters and clowns have often been represented as harmless tricksters throughout history, whereas others have been presented in a more sarcastic, sinister and even demented light. The idea of the “killer clown” or “evil clown” became widespread in the 1970’s and 1980’s in the United States. Paradoxically, while clowns are frightening to some people, studies have found that clowns employed in hospital settings can help reduce children’s anxiety before an operation.
Celebrities who reportedly have a fear of clowns include Sean Combs, Johnny Depp, Daniel Radcliffe, Carol Burnett, and Anthony Bourdain.
Coulrophobia can be treated with standard exposure-based anxiety treatments for phobias, including systematic desensitization. If a fear of clowns is interfering with your life, consult a health professional to discuss possible treatment options.
While there is not a lot of specific scientific information on fear of clowns on the web, check out these websites to learn more about phobias in general: