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Are you scared of clowns just to be cool?

Guilford Adams runs the Los Angeles Clown Company. With the recent menacing clown sightings in Bakersfield, Adams talks about how he interacts with people to try and ease their dislike for clowns.
Guilford Adams runs the Los Angeles Clown Company. With the recent menacing clown sightings in Bakersfield, Adams talks about how he interacts with people to try and ease their dislike for clowns.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC

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"It just seems fashionable, right now," says Guilford Adams aka Gilly the Clown, chief executive clown for Los Angeles Clown.

But that hasn't stopped some people from saying that they're deathly afraid of him.

The fear of clowns like Gilly actually has a name: coulrophobia. The phenomenon goes back centuries, says historian and writer Linda Rodriguez McRobbie.

"There's been a general uncomfortability with clowns for as long as that character has existed," she says.

The idea that clowns had a dark side first came to prominence with Joseph Grimaldi, a famous London clown during the early 1800s.

He was so popular that an eighth of the city had seen him on stage at some point.

But behind the scenes he had a tragic life: his wife died in childbirth, his son drank himself to death at 31, and his acrobatic tricks and tumbles left him with debilitating pain and prematurely disabled.

Grimaldi, himself, died alcoholic and penniless.

"That's where Dickens came in," says Rodriguez McRobbie.

Charles Dickens edited Grimaldi's memoirs and, in typical Dickensian fashion, suggested that for every laugh on the outside Grimaldi was anguished on the inside.

That set the stage for the menacing image of clowns.

"It wasn't until the 20th century that we made clowns kids' entertainment," she says, "and that's when we started getting really, actively scared of them."

But Gilly the clown says many of you aren't REALLY scared.

Stephen King didn't do Bozo any favors

Popular culture has a lot to do with why certain generations come to fear clowns. For example...

Pennywise the Dancing Clown introduced coulrophobia to many people in Stephen King's novel and miniseries, "It."

Meanwhile, people tuning into FX lately have to endure Twisty the Clown, this season's villain on, "American Horror Story: Freak Show." 

Also in Kern County, California, clowns have been roaming the streets at night. The first bozos to hit the street were for a photo project, but all the rest: copycats. And these ones are brandishing weapons.

These examples aren't really doing much good PR for clowns, but Gilly the clown says people who are unnerved by him aren't really that scared.

"When I walked in here today [to KPCC], there's a lady at reception," he says. "She seems like a really sweet girl, but I didn't catch her face because she was terrified."

As in, she hid her face and needed someone else to usher him to the studio. He says she's the one percent.

Most of the time, though, Gilly says people who say they're scared are doing it to impress their friends.

"Like they've got a commonality with those people because this the population that's grown up with It and the John Wayne Gacys and Krusty," he says. "Every image of clown that you have is kind of a crusty type of individual."

Historian Linda Rodriguez McRobbie agrees. "Are you really, really afraid of clowns? Probably not as much as you are afraid of your friends."

Gilly also says he's noticed something about the people in LA who say they're scared: they're mostly white and into mainstream culture.

"If you're any of the minorities or one that has any ethnicity, they tend not to be scared of clowns," he says. "There's less of stigma."

He suggests that perhaps it's because they didn't grow up watching clowns like Tim Curry as Pennywise.

"It's something in modern caucasian culture or American white suburban culture that clowns tend to play more of a negative stereotype than if you look at, for example, the [hispanic] community."

The science behind the scare

Historian Linda Rodriguez McRobbie says there is some real science behind the fear: the Uncanny Valley.

It's a theory that's usually applied to robotics, and it states that when something is human-like but whose features are a little off and not exact, it makes real humans unnerved and repulsed.

When clowns put on face paint, says Rodriguez McRobbie, it clouds our ability to read their facial cues and expressions.

"When someone's got their smile painted on their sad face, it's hard to see what's going on beneath the make-up," she says. "People are just never really certain of a clown's motives."

Gilly is aware of that, and in his own practice he'll wear less clown make-up when around children.

He'll also use clever psychology so a crying child won't find him scary.

"I try not to give him too much attention," he says, "but I'll corral the other kids and let him, through example, know that the other kids aren't scared of me: that he will come around."

However, he admits that there are some people who are genuinely scared of clowns, and that any of us can be scared under the right circumstances, too.

"If I got out of my car in a parking garage and there was a clown with just three balloons standing in the corner, it would freak me out! And I'm a clown myself," he says. "We can all be scared of clowns, too, if the clown is scary-looking enough."