Alex Waterfield was a student at Columbia University when she wrote this 2006 piece about the fear of clowns:
NEW YORK — Beth Wallace was stopped at a traffic light when a truck pulled up next to her. As she took a sip from her thermos of coffee, Wallace, 32, a San Francisco resident, glanced at the driver, who turned his head and returned the stare.
It was then that she saw the ghostly white face and bulbous red nose: The driver was a clown. Wallace shrieked and scrambled to lock her car doors, barely noticing the hot coffee she spilled on herself.
Wallace, a teacher, has been petrified of clowns since childhood. “I know it’s irrational, but they scare the bejesus out of me, ” she said.
The fear of clowns, or coulrophobia, is no laughing matter. Although there are no official statistics, some experts believe that as many as one in seven people suffer from some level of the phobia, symptoms of which can include shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, sweating, nausea and overall feelings of dread.
In October, a plan to erect dozens of clown statues in Sarasota, Fla., a fabled circus town, was almost scrapped after an outcry from coulrophobes and clown-haters.
Coulrophobia is most commonly triggered by a traumatic experience in childhood, said Steven Luel, a psychologist in New York specializing in anxiety and phobias. Indeed, that was the case with Wallace. At the age of 6, she met her first clown at the circus, an encounter she still remembers clearly 25 years later.
“A clown got right up in my face, and I could see his beard stubble under his makeup. He smelled bad and his eyes were weird, ” she said. “I guess I never got over it.”
Clowns have been around for thousands of years, serving a unique role in many societies. In Egypt and China as far back as 1800 B.C., court jesters were permitted to mock and criticize kings when no one else could.
But it is precisely this ability to act outside normal social boundaries that makes some people uncomfortable around clowns, experts say. “Clowns can pull off your wig or squirt you in the face with water and generally make fun of you without suffering any consequences, ” said Derek Lee, a coulrophobe living in New York.
On ihateclowns.com, one of the many Web sites dedicated to the phobia, an anonymous writer admitted that his fear of clowns stemmed from once being ridiculed by one.
“I was at a circus when a clown came up to me and said, ‘Would you like to see the monkey I have in my box?’ Well, of course, I did, so I said yes. When I looked into the box, there was no monkey . . . only a mirror.”
It doesn’t help, clowns point out, that authors and screenwriters have often portrayed them as agents of evil. In Stephen King’s 1986 novel “It, ” an evil clown called Pennywise harasses and kills young children. In the 1982 movie “Poltergeist, ” a clown doll comes to life and tries to strangle a young boy. And, of course, there’s the Joker, Batman’s clownlike nemesis, who appeared in the first issue of the Batman comic book in 1940.
In one case, truth was more shocking than fiction. John Wayne Gacy, who was convicted in 1978 of sexually abusing and murdering 33 young men and boys in the Chicago area, would often perform as “Pogo” or “Patches” at children’s parties and hospitals. His favorite subject when he took up oil painting while on death row was also clowns.
Whatever the root causes, the reality of coulrophobia became painfully clear to clowns last month when a wave of anti-clown sentiment swept through Sarasota. When coulrophobes there got wind that city officials were about to approve a plan to put 70 life-sized fiberglass clown statues throughout the downtown area, they inundated city agencies with phone calls, e-mails messages and in-person visits protesting the plan.
The outcry was an especially large pie in Sarasota’s face because it’s one place where clowns should be loved and respected. The town is one of America’s premier big-top hubs and has served as the winter home to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus for more than 30 years. Fifteen major circus companies are based there. It is said to be home to more circus people, both working and retired, than any one place in the world.
Still, some Sarasotans confessed to deep-rooted objections to the clown statues.
“Clowns give me the creeps, ” wrote resident Lowell Gilbertson in a letter to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
“How would you like to be driving around downtown and see your worst fear everywhere and super-sized?” Karen
Thompson wrote to the city commission.
Ken Shelin, a Sarasota city commissioner, received dozens of such complaints. “I was shocked, ” he said. “I had no idea people felt so strongly against clowns.”
Although the plan is still likely to go ahead, city officials are thinking about reducing the number of statues to 35 and removing them after six months instead of a year. The proposed changes were prompted because of concerns over vandalism and protests. One person, for instance, threatened in an anonymous e-mail to knock the clown statues down with his car.
The response among those who make their living as clowns has been one of dismay. “It hurts to hear I put the fear of God into people, ” said Mike Jeynes, a full-time clown who has worked in Sarasota for more than 20 years. “I got into this gig to make them laugh, not to make them upset.”
We’ve also written about how Austin’s haunted house companies use clowns to scare: Theories vary about why clowns are so frightening. Some say movies such as “It” and “Killer Clowns from Outer Space” tainted them forever.
“I think it’s the whole mask issue, ” says Stephen Laurent, the owner of the Nightmare Factory. “They’re supposed to be all jolly, but they’re usually not. A lot of people are deathly afraid of clowns. They don’t even want to walk in a room with something that looks like a clown.”
Yet, there are many people who love clowns. We’ve talked to professional clowns before. Read this interview with Taylor Albin, a Texas native, who works for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. He explained his passion this way: “Some kids dream of being president and then settle on being a doctor or a lawyer,” Albin says. But he grew up going to the circus whenever it would come to the Dallas/Fort Worth area near where he lived in Mineral Wells. “I thought, ‘I really want to do this one day.’”
He explains how he handles when people are afraid of clowns: “We don’t scare you,” he says. “That’s not our job.” But when someone is afraid, he tries to get on their level and talk to them. Almost always, kids realize the clowns are not that scary. They are just people with makeup and really loud clothing. If a kid is completely freaked out, the clowns just walk away.
We’ve also told you of Austin’s Billy Ray Howard, who goes by Limpy the Clown. He became a clown after being mugged. He describes his metamorphosis this way: “I was very scared because of the mugging, and I hid behind the makeup,” he says of his Limpy days. “And before I knew it, I was a clown. A kid named me Limpy. This kid said ‘You’re just a limpy clown,’ and it stuck like glue. Before that, I was Silly Billy Bean.”
So, kids, especially you teenagers who think you need to be funny, let’s refrain from dressing as a clown for Halloween, please.