Fear of clowns is a real thing, and there’s even a word for it: coulrophobia. Maybe it doesn’t hold the same weight as, say, glossophobia (fear of public speaking), atychiphobia (fear of failure), acrophobia (fear of heights) or arachnophobia (fear of spiders), which are more likely to affect your everyday life.
But for lots of kids and even some adults, coulrophobia is a very real fear. In fact, in Britain, it’s the third-most common phobia, according to National Public Radio. That news prompted John Lawson’s Circus in the U.K. to offer pre-show “clownseling,” allowing people to meet the clowns pre-makeup and then watch the transformation process.
Some of this coulrophobia can be attributed to Stephen King’s It, Heath Ledger’s Joker portrayal and the real-life scary clown, serial killer John Wayne Gacy — but it’s just as likely that sufferers of coulrophobia have simply been around too many terrible clowns.
After all, being a good clown — that is, a clown that kids and adults enjoy being around — takes lots of practice, say Granite State Clowns members. The organization, which consists of about 15 people who love to clown, meets every month at the Nashua YMCA to talk about upcoming events, develop alter egos and prevent beginner clowns from making common rookie mistakes.
At the meeting, GSC president Barbara Foristall recalled her first clowning attempt.
“When my daughter was 2 years old, I dressed up as a clown for her. I put on my mother’s plaid blazer, a big bow tie and the scariest face you can imagine,” Foristall said.
The face, white with black lines coming down from her eyes, wasn’t supposed be be scary. When she knocked on the front door wearing her clown attire, she wanted to get a laugh from her daughter.
Needless to say, that didn’t happen.
“You learn pretty quickly what that kind of makeup does!” Foristall said.
Foristall has been a clown for 27 years now. Her alter egos are Cracker Jacks the Clown, who sports bright orange hair, primary-colored clothing and massive freckles, and Maggie May the Bag Lady, an old, raggedy woman who accessorizes with a musty floral hat and gray feather duster.
Years ago, coulrophobia was a bit more common and understandable; in some cases, clowns really could be scary, and not just in the movies.
“Clowns used to squirt you with water. They’d jump up from behind and scare you,” Foristall said.
In the beginning, clowns were also considered adult entertainment. The old-fashioned get-ups featured grotesque white makeup with big, exaggerated features so you could see the details from the back row of the circus ring.
But for working clowns today, that’s all wrong. The Granite State Clowns prefer Auguste makeup — a bit of color, a bit of white, but more flesh tones than old-fashioned scary clowns. This style is less harsh and more approachable, especially for children.
Three-year-olds, Foristall said, are generally the kids who will be most afraid because they’re still learning to distinguish reality and fantasy. Good, experienced clowns should be trained to know how to approach frightened children — namely, they don’t.
“You never approach a child who’s scared. You let them come to you,” said Claire Marcott, i.e., Cheerio the clown. Her clowning specialty is balloons, and in her retirement, she travels across the globe to clowning conventions.
“There’s not one of us in the club who has a scary face. It’s very rare that a child has not eventually approached me,” Marcott said.
But perhaps one of the best ways to overcome your fear of clowns, an example taken from John Lawson’s Circus, is to meet clowners without makeup, to talk about why they enjoy clowning so much, and to see the real people behind the big red noses and floppy feet.
“It gives them the opportunity to be kids again, but we get as much out of it as people get out of us,” said Alan Flagg, better known in the clowning community as Alley Oop the Clown. He likes making people laugh. “Actually,” he added, “We get more out of it.”
Pam Bridge, whose clowning character is named Lollipop, started clowning for her many young nieces and nephews. She was surprised to find a passion for the art.
“I was extremely shy. Clowning brought me out of hiding,” Bridge said.
As seen in the March 13, 2014 issue of the Hippo.