Evolution of the Clown: Rustic Fool or Frightening Fiend?

December 16, 2019

Coulrophobia is defined as an extreme, irrational fear of clowns.

Depending on whom you talk to, two to eight percent of adults suffer from this debilitating phobia, which causes them to sweat profusely, tremble, and have panic attacks or difficulty breathing…all at the sight of a bumbling, childlike buffoon with the sole intention of making us laugh.

Even more people are simply disturbed by clowns—not terrified, merely “creeped out.”*Above image from Pinterest

How did this happen?

How can the same jovial fellows who reduce pre-operative anxiety in children’s hospitals cause a fight-or-flight response in others?

The answer follows a downward trajectory through time, thanks to a few notable personas, some unfortunate incidents, and a few common threads that run through clown history.

Let’s start from the beginning.


Picture it: 2500 BC; Pygmy clowns draw chuckles from Egyptian pharaohs.

Fast forward 2000 years to imperial China, where Qin Shih Huang was entertained by Yu Sze at the time the Great Wall was completed (it’s rumoured that he changed the emperor’s mind about painting The Wall). Ancient Rome even had its own side-splitting clown named Stupidus.Medieval Europe’s jesters aided in unburdening the oppressed by helping them laugh at government officials. Then, in the new world, clowns interjected their ridiculous antics into sombre dance rituals of the Hopi Native Americans. Then, the 18th and 19th Centuries saw the growth of the pantomime in Britain and Western Europe.

Despite clowns’ reputations for lightening solemn circumstances, they had a dark side…almost from the very beginning.

Joseph Grimaldi, London’s most famous whiteface clown, virtually destroyed his body for the sake of entertainment. Then, in Paris, Jean-Gaspard Deburau’s Pierrot used a stick to kill a boy who was heckling him.

When clowns moved from street theatre to the circus, the rationale was a bit of comedic relief from all the gasp-worthy acts,

but some might say the clowns embodied a role of “lunacy.”

With more open space for tumbling, falling, tripping, performing acts of drama and violence…clowns began to embody something a bit more sinister than childish hilarity.

By the time the circus arrived in America, many of the clowns’ faces were painted with tears, looks of troubled depression…and they were dressed as unshaven hobos in tattered clothing. Add that to the pressure to engage audiences in laughter—which often led to aggressive clown behaviour—and the progression of fear starts to become evident.

Psychologists believe the fear of clowns is only intensified by the inability to clearly read emotions on clowns’ faces. As children develop socially, they learn to interpret smiling eyes, raised eyebrows, wrinkled foreheads…and use those cues to determine if people (and characters) are safe. When a face looks happy, but acts angry, or a mouth looks sad but the eyes sparkle, the mixed messages confuse the psyche and cause uncertainty…which feels a lot like fear (and can develop as such).

Add all of this to the unpredictable, agitated behaviour of some well-intentioned clowns and that fear can solidify into an honest-to-goodness phobia.

Journal of Health Psychology reports that clowns have a knack for reducing anxiety in youngsters.

Natural Medicine Journal tells us that children suffering from respiratory ailments make improvements after interacting with clowns.

Clowns want us to rely on them to ease our tension, and they want us to laugh—even under the hardest of circumstances.

One of the best things we can do for our children is expose them to that kind of merriment early in life. It teaches them to discern between fantasy and reality…and to prevent irrational fears from developing.

And we can’t forget: adults need to laugh, too.

It’s utterly essential to health and happiness.

At Bamboozled, our performers (clowns and otherwise) are working to spread joy; to lighten burdens and take minds off problems…even if just for a few moments’ time.

If you could use more joy in your life, or you’re sponsoring an event where joy will be an essential element, check out our Entertainment page. There’s nothing scary about that!

Louise Clarke

74 Upper Sturt Road, Upper Sturt, SA 5156 Australia

P: +61 (0) 404 834 589

We acknowledge the Kaurna People as the Traditional Owners of the land on which we work. We recognise that this land always was and always will be Aboriginal land and we pay our respects to Elders, past, present and emerging.