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The psychology behind your fear of creepy clowns

Clown sightings and clown-related crimes have been creeping out South Carolinians since at least one tried to lure kids into the woods in Greenville in August.

Now, people in clown makeup and costumes have been terrorizing both children and adults in North Carolina and as far away as Britain.

The epidemic has caused some retailers like Target to remove clown masks from its stores. Others have reported clown masks are flying off the shelves.

All of this has seemed to elevate our collective fear of evil clowns.

Robin Rosenthal, associate provost of academic affairs and associate professor of psychology at Columbia College, explains what exactly makes clowns so creepy and why many people fear them.

Q: How common is a fear of clowns?

Rosenthal: Very common. It’s especially very, very common with kids. Sometimes people grow out of it, but it’s still common with adults, but less so.

Q: Is fearing clowns a recent phenomenon?

Rosenthal: No. Go back historically, clowns and tricksters have been in existence throughout history. They were supposed to be performing trickery, or getting people to talk about things they don’t usually, or funny things. They didn't act like normal people.

Q: Why do some people think clowns are creepy?

Rosenthal: It’s a painted on, white face with fixed features wearing a costume and shoes that don’t fit and look odd. For a little kid, it looks pretty scary. And the fear of them starts when we’re younger. …They are wearing a drawn-on mask, they’re hiding something. They have a painted on, immobile face. Something is going on with them you can not see. It’s not the way most people look.

Q: What do clowns do to become creepy clowns?

Rosenthal: Clowns as they appear in the circus (with sad faces or happy faces), people don’t see clowns like that anymore….Clowns’ faces now look like death masks. People and movies have spent a lot of time developing that so they look scary. Even before, they were scary because they wore strange clothes and had faces that were painted on, and giant feet.

Q: What does it mean if you fear clowns?

Rosenthal: It’s a phobia – coulrophobia, fear of clowns. It means you have a visceral, physiological reaction to being around them.