Quit Clowning Around!

Joseph Grimaldi

Smithsonian.com has issued an article titled “The History of Clowns Being Scary” that might be of interest to some of our readers.

“Clowns, as pranksters, jesters, jokers, harlequins, and mythologized tricksters have been around for ages. They appear in most cultures—Pygmy clowns made Egyptian pharaohs laugh in 2500 BCE; in ancient imperial China, a court clown called YuSze was, according to the lore, the only guy who could poke holes in Emperor Qin Shih Huang’s plan to paint the Great Wall of China; Hopi Native Americans had a tradition of clown-like characters who interrupted serious dance rituals with ludicrous antics. Ancient Rome’s clown was a stock fool called the stupidus; the court jesters of medieval Europe were a sanctioned way for people under the feudal thumb to laugh at the guys in charge; and well into the 18th and 19th century, the prevailing clown figure of Western Europe and Britain was the pantomime clown, who was a sort of bumbling buffoon.”

David Kiser, director of talent for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus says, “But clowns have always had a dark side… After all, these were characters who reflected a funhouse mirror back on society; academics note that their comedy was often derived from their voracious appetites for food, sex, and drink, and their manic behavior. “So in one way, the clown has always been an impish spirit… as he’s kind of grown up, he’s always been about fun, but part of that fun has been a bit of mischief”.

In psychology, Coulrophobia is the word used to describe those who suffer from a persistent fear of clowns. When it starts in childhood the fear of clowns is diagnosed under the category of paediatric phobia of costumed characters. According to Dr. Brenda Wiederhold, an American psychologist who specializes in phobia and anxiety treatment, it begins in children around age two who are anxious of strangers and are not able to distinguish fantasy from reality. Most children outgrow this fear; however, Coulrophobia in adulthood would fall under the Anxiety Disorder categorization of specific phobia:a phobia, anxiety, or fear whose symptoms must have been present for at least 6 months (the DSM-V no longer requires that the fear be perceived as excessive or unfounded).

If you’d like a bit of further reading, Joseph Durwin of Trinity University has written an interesting history of clowns as tricksters, gang members, and villains available here.

About Arlie Belliveau

Arlie Belliveau is a doctoral student enrolled in York University's History and Theory of Psychology program. She specializes in psychologists' early use of film.