No laughing matter: A brief look at scary clowns and coulrophobia

A few days ago, the Nottingham Trent University Press Office asked if I would be interested in speaking to BBC Online News about coulrophobia (i.e., a fear of clowns). Obviously this is not my specialist area and the only article I’ve ever written about clown psychology was a previous blog on coulrophilia (i.e., sexual arousal from clowns) and an article on the psychology of fancy dress. It turned out that the BBC were writing a story about the British police being inundated with clowns scaring people by jumping out and chasing them. More specifically, the story claimed:

“Police across England have been called to dozens of incidents in which pranksters dress as ‘creepy clowns’ to deliberately scare people. The culprits are said to be following a trend that started in the US [and has spread to other countries, including Canada, Australia and France]. A 30-year-old man was arrested in Norwich after someone dressed as a clown jumped out from behind a tree and “terrified” a woman in a public park. On Sunday Thames Valley Police said it had been called to 14 incidents in 24 hours. In County Durham on Friday, four children were followed to school by a man in a clown outfit who was armed with what turned out to be a plastic machete. In a separate clowning caper in County Durham on Friday, police in Peterlee posted a photo on their Facebook page of items including two masks confiscated from two 12-year-olds who officers said had gone to a primary school to scare children. Meanwhile, in Kidlington, Oxfordshire, a man dressed as a clown and carrying a baseball bat was reported to have chased a 10-year-old child through a park. Gloucestershire Police said it had received six reports of ‘clowns’ behaving suspiciously or carrying knives. In one instance a child was followed. A cyclist in Eastbourne, Sussex, was left ‘shaken’ after someone dressed as a clown jumped out from a bush brandishing what he believed was an offensive weapon. And in Sudbury, Suffolk, a boy was chased by “several people dressed as clowns”.


As there was little academic research in coulrophobia, I felt I was as qualified as anyone to speculate on the roots of coulrophobia. I told the BBC that clowns tend to be scary because of their exaggerated looks and evil representation in films. Obviously, the vast majority of individuals are not scared of clowns in a day-to-day context but a clown’s face has become part of a scare culture. I noted that there is a stereotype of the nasty, evil, eerie clown. If you look at clowns facially what you tend to find is part of their face or feet are exaggerated, they have huge noses, scary mouths, huge elongated shoes, and wildfire hair. I also made reference to the cinematic trope of the evil clown. If you look at everything from Heath Ledger as The Joker in Batman to the clown in Stephen King‘s It. These clowns or characters with clown faces are either killers or they are doing really nasty things. Even if you have not come into contact with clowns, you’re likely to be influenced by what you see in television and films. According to the Wikipedia entry on coulrophobia:

“Clown costumes tend to exaggerate the facial features and some body parts, such as hands and feet and noses. This can be read as monstrous or deformed as easily as it can be read as comical. The significant aberrations in a clown’s face may alter a person’s appearance so much that it enters the so-called ‘uncanny valley’ in which a figure is lifelike enough to be disturbing, but not realistic enough to be pleasant—and thus frightens a child so much that they carry this phobia throughout their adult life. According to psychology professor Joseph Durwin at California State University, Northridge, young children are ‘very reactive to a familiar body type with an unfamiliar face. Researchers who have studied the phobia believe there is some correlation to the uncanny valley effect. Additionally, the fact that much clown behavior is ‘transgressive’ (anti-social behavior) can create feelings of unease”.

A couple of weeks ago after the spate of US clown attacks, Professor Frank McAndrew wrote an article for The Conversation on the psychology of what creeps us out about clowns. He compared his own thinking to that of the Canadian psychologist Dr. Rami Nader. More specifically, Professor McAndrew noted:

“[Dr. Nader] believes that clown phobias are fueled by the fact that clowns wear makeup and disguises that hide their true identities and feelings. This is perfectly consistent with my hypothesis that it is the inherent ambiguity surrounding clowns that make them creepy. They seem to be happy, but are they really? And they’re mischievous, which puts people constantly on guard. People interacting with a clown during one of his routines never know if they are about to get a pie in the face or be the victim of some other humiliating prank. The highly unusual physical characteristics of the clown (the wig, the big red nose, the makeup, the odd clothing) only magnify the uncertainty of what the clown might do next”.

No-one knows why the spate of clown attacks have occurred in the UK (or elsewhere). My own take on it is that the flurry of media stories about the phenomenon has probably contributed to some copycat cases (which then led one news story to the headline based on my radio interview with Talk Radio: Killer clown attacks: Leading professor says sensationalist media has fuelled ‘Clownpocalypse’”) although there are likely to be other reasons (given that Halloween is coming up). As a psychologist I am far more interested in why someone would attack others dressed as a clown in the first place.

Here, I see a lot of similarities with online behaviour in that dressing up as a character is like the taking on of another persona when people are online carrying out anti-social acts such as trolling. While the psychological core and personality of an individual online or dressed up in an outfit with a mask (or thick hideous make-up) is still that same person, the anonymity provided by the nature of online interactions and the anonymity provided by wearing a different face or mask both lead to the person becoming more disinhibited and doing things that they would never do in a normal face-to-face situation. In essence, such people are taking on other identities – at least momentarily – and carrying out anti-social acts that they would normally not do. However, there will also be those who carry out such attacks because they get crazed and/or sadistic pleasure from doing so. Their motives may be as simple as boredom, revenge and/ or just wanting to ‘have a laugh’ – the main motives that have been found in my own research among people who troll online.

The current spate of clown attacks may well die down as quickly as they have come about and I’m sure as the media reporting decreases there will be less of such attacks (at least I am hoping so).

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

BBC News (2016). ‘Creepy clown’ police warnings as craze spreads. October 10, Located at:

Dolan, L. (2016). Killer clown attacks: Leading professor says sensationalist media has fuelled ‘Clownpocalypse’. Talk Radio, October 11. Located at:

Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Adolescent trolling in online environments: A brief overview. Education and Health, 32, 85-87.

Hayden, D. (2016). ‘Creepy clowns’ craze: Professionals hit out at pranksters. BBC News, October 11. Located at:

McAndrew, F.T. (2016). The psychology behind why clowns creep us out. The Conversation, September 29. Located at:

Thacker, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An exploratory study of trolling in online video gaming. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 2(4), 17-33.

Wikipedia (2016). Coulrophobia. Located at:

Wikipedia (2016). Uncanny valley. Located at:

Zidbits (2011). Why are some people afraid of clowns? October 20. Located at:

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on October 13, 2016, in Case Studies, Compulsion, Crime, Fame, Mania, Obsession, Paraphilia, Popular Culture, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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