Special to the Ledger
After a recent wave of mysterious clown sightings across the country, coulrophobia — the fear of clowns — has rushed to the surface for many people. Despite their initial purpose of bringing happiness and relieving stress, clowns often do the opposite of that..
During infant development, the human brain begins to recognize faces and common aspects including everything from complexion to mouth shape. The fear of clowns begins to take shape in early childhood, according to developmental psychologists. Infants notice the differences in the faces of clowns and become confused and scared.
Barbara Ladd, Professor of Psychology, has been studying child development for nearly 40 years. Ladd said that these fears are classically conditioned. When emotions are felt in the early stages of life, those same emotions will arise later when presented in a similar situation.
“With the clown thing, this is a face with exaggerated features that are really unusual, especially to a small child,” Ladd said. “If you think about something as an infant and you have seen these kind faces … and associate them with comfort … then you see this crazy thing that is almost remarkable to you, it’s just kind of frightening.”
Jon Johnson, student, weighed in on things that create our fear towards clowns.
“It kind of develops into this uncanny valley where the person is covering up their face,” Johnson said. “There is something sinister about the painted on smile.”
Johnson said he does not personally fear clowns, but feels there is a correlation between their ambiguity and our fears.
Patti Ward, Professor of Psychology, has been studying the brain for 26 years and also discussed the matter.
“If we are looking at a crowd of people and every person out there is smiling except for one, humans are instinctively able to identify the one not smiling,” Ward said. “We by nature are going jump back from that perverted human, which is what clowns are.”
People’s brains view these differences as a threat and from an evolutionary standpoint are automatically going to jump back and feel fear towards these differences, according to Ladd. When people take into account these two ideas of classical fear conditioned towards these exaggerated features along with the use of clowns for scary movies throughout history, things make much more sense.