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Psychologist who has studied ‘nature of creepiness’ on why humans are scared of clowns




A clown remains on the stage during the second day of the XXI Convention of Clowns, at the Jimenez Rueda Theatre, in Mexico City on October 18, 2016.
A clown remains on the stage during the second day of the XXI Convention of Clowns, at the Jimenez Rueda Theatre, in Mexico City on October 18, 2016.
PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images

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Once most closely associated with children’s birthday parties and the circus, most recently clowns have been tied to some unsettling sightings in over 20 states. Why?

Because these aren’t your typical pie-in-the-face, pin-juggling, slapstick clowns. These clowns are legitimately scaring people, and some reports suggest they’ve even tried to lure people into the woods. It’s gotten so bad that schools in several states have even banned clown costumes this Halloween.

The specific origin of the ‘creepy clown’ is difficult to pinpoint, but the persona became etched into the minds of many Americans after the capture of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who dressed up as a clown for kids’ birthday parties and was eventually found to have killed 33 people. From there, clowns like Pennywise from like Stephen King’s movie “It,” the killer clown at the end of “Zombieland,” and the clown under the bed in “Poltergeist” have only pushed people’s coulrophobia (that’s the irrational fear of clowns) further, and it has been heightened even more by the recent outbreak of ‘creepy clown’ sightings across the U.S.

So, what is it that creeps people out so much about clowns? Psychologist Frank McAndrew, who conducted the first empirical study of creepiness, hypothesizes that the unpredictability of clowns is a large factor fueling the fear of them. You never really know if the clown is just going to juggle for you or if it might try to prank you with a pie in the face or an unexpected zap of your hand during a handshake. There’s also the makeup, which McAndrew says could contribute to people’s fear of clowns because the makeup and disguises clowns wear could hide their true intentions.

Today on AirTalk, Larry speaks with Professor McAndrew, who has written recently about what fuels people’s fear of clowns and being ‘creeped out’ in general and the history of the ‘creepy clown.’

Guest:

Frank McAndrew, professor of psychology at Knox College (Galesburg, IL); his piece in the Washington Post is “Why clowns creep us out