By Kali Kushner | Culture Editor

Stephen King’s “IT” features the terrifying killer-clown Pennywise, tapping into a common phobia of the American public. (Courtesy of Den of Geek)

With the recent release of a second film adaptation of Stephen King’s “It,” coulrophobia has returned to the forefront of minds across the world. “It,” which was initially adapted for the screen in 1990, is commonly considered a cult classic for the horror genre and has likely contributed to the spread of the phobia. I’ve always struggled to understand the fear of clowns because I don’t have any particular feelings associated with them. However, I have grown up with a best friend who struggles with coulrophobia, so I have become aware of how common it still is.

Clowns have an extensive presence in American history, as they have taken on similar characteristics practiced in cultures around the world. For example, Kathakali dancers in India preserve traditional storytelling by performing stories while relying predominantly on their exaggerated facial expressions, which are further dramaticized with their bold face paintings.

In the United States, clowns are often depicted as existing in two spheres of entertainment, either adolescent birthday parties or traveling circus productions. However, clown depictions have become more common in the media, ranging from the music group, “Insane Clown Posse,” in which the singers and fanbase dress is unique clown makeup, or last year when there was a strange period of killer clown sightings across the country. While clowns are intended to act as modern jesters, using bright colors and performing silly tricks, many view clowns as figures fit for nightmares.

Since one of my hobbies is reading up on true crime, I tend to associate clowns with the infamous serial killer, John Wayne Gacy Jr., who murdered over thirty-three young men in the 1970s while working as a clown. I believe the sensationalization of Gacy’s crimes is what led to the widespread fear of clowns in the States, which is still being exploited by media today. Aside from Stephen King’s “It” returning to theatres, the latest season of American Horror Story is also playing off of the “scary clown” archetype. Because images of clowns have infiltrated my life lately, I’ve wondered why people are afraid of clowns. What is it about clowns that leads Hollywood to continue to use them in horror films?

Business Insider recently interviewed Dr. Dena Rabinowitz, a New York psychologist who specializes in patients with phobias or general anxiety disorders. According to Dr. Rabinowitz, the human mind is naturally programmed to feel discomfort in the face of something that is familiar, but just a little off. For people who struggle with coulrophobia, clowns are representations of humans, but just a little off, and it’s this slight error that makes us shiver. In addition, humans rely on facial expressions to determine if someone is trustworthy, so the trademark makeup that clowns wear prevents us from seeing their true faces, allowing them the ability to deceive us.

Overall, Dr. Rabinowitz advises that the first step to getting over one’s phobia is to recognize the reality that the object of your fear is harmless. From there on, you can ease yourself into viewing clowns in a safe space, but I definitely recommend taking your time with this, as rushing to see “It” will likely only increase these fears.

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