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There's a Scientific Reason Why We're So Afraid of Clowns

By Leah Groth ; Updated October 13, 2017

If the coming attraction for the latest take on Stephen King’s “It” is making you squirm every time you think about clowns, you aren’t alone. Fear of clowns even has a scientific name, coulrophobia, and 12 percent of Americans admit to suffering from it, while 43 percent simply dislike the face-painted mimes.

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But don’t blame Pennywise or other horror-movie characters for your clown angst — apparently there is a scientific reason behind the phobia, and it has to do with the primal instinct of pattern recognition.

“Pattern recognition allows you to see when things are recognizable but off just enough to where you take caution,” assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School Steve Scholzman, M.D., told People. “That’s why a little kid can recognize something as being a little bit dangerous without quite knowing why they know it’s dangerous. They recognize it as familiar but not quite the same as what they’re seeing.”

He uses the example of two types of dogs — a pug and a German shepherd. Despite the fact they look very different, they are both still dogs. When we look at a clown, the same instinct is triggered because he or she appears human but has distorted features.

“With clowns, you have two arms and legs and a face — it’s human,” Scholzman continues. “Like most monsters, it’s a recognizable shape that’s tweaked. The perpetual smile by itself is a different type of pattern recognition because we look at people’s expressions to get a sense of what to feel upon seeing them. But a clown doesn’t do anything but smile, so you don’t really know what it’s thinking or feeling. And all of those things are playing on pattern recognition.”

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the clown industry has taken a legit hit from the impending release of “It”: Performing clowns are actually losing gigs because of the reignited fear. “The clowns are pissed at me,” Stephen King tweeted in April. “Sorry, most are great. But kids have always been scared of clowns. Don’t kill the messengers for the message.”

While clowns can incite fear, the Smithsonian points out they may benefit the health of sick children. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Health Psychology found that therapy clowns reduced anxiety in children having minor surgery, while a 2011 study featured in the Natural Medicine Journal discovered that children hospitalized for respiratory illness who played with therapeutic clowns recovered faster.

The symptoms of coulrophobia include a feeling of terror or dread, anxiety, trembling, shortness of breath and rapid or irregular heartbeat. If you think you may suffer from a serious phobia of clowns, you should contact your physician. Treatment methods include exposure therapy (yes, coming face-to-face with actual clowns) and cognitive behavioral therapy or anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications.

But if you just don’t like clowns and are totally creeped out by Pennywise, you might want to avoid heading to the theater for the opening night of “It” on September 8.

What Do YOU Think?

How do you feel about clowns? Do you know anyone who suffers from coulrophobia? Do you think horror movies like “It” exasperate the clown-fearing epidemic?

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