Nfld. & Labrador

Back off, Bozo: A fear of clowns is no laughing matter

April MacDonald has always been afraid of clowns, and experts say she's not alone.

April MacDonald has always been afraid of clowns, and experts say she's not alone

Coulrophobia is the extreme or irrational fear of clowns. (Dean Gutheil/CBC)

You could line up the scariest monsters and ghouls outside her door, and Corner Brook's April MacDonald wouldn't bat an eye. If you turn on the bloodiest slasher film you can think of she'll gladly pop the popcorn.

But send a smiling, happy clown with oversized shoes and a big red nose, and the 40-year-old mother of one will shamelessly knock you over trying to escape

"I'm not one to be afraid of something," she said. "But if there's a clown in a room I will do everything to avoid it."

A lover of the horror genre, April MacDonald drawns the line when it comes to clowns. (Kassie Lukeman)

MacDonald is serious when she says she doesn't scare easily.

Two years ago she spent the night alone at the Carlton County Jail in Ottawa. The prison-turned-hostel is said to be one of the most haunted places in North America. She had a great night and slept like the dead.

But she says there's something about your run-of-the-mill clown that she finds paralyzing.

"[Their] features are always so incorrect, " she said. "The exaggerated smile or the frown and, you know, the tears. Like everything is so fake and not showing what's inside."

MacDonald has no idea how it all started but said she's been afraid of clowns as long as she remembers.

It turns out she's not alone.

Coulrophobia

Frank McAndrew, a psychology professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., did a survey on creepy professions and found clowns topped the list.

He said some of that is because clowns don't operate by normal social rules. Even historically, jesters and harlequins could do and say what they liked even to the king and as long as they were entertaining, they'd get away with it. He says it's a power normal people did not have.

Stephen King's killer clown Pennywise has been terrifying people since the book It was published in 1986. (Warner Brothers)

Over the past 40 years, he said, fear of clowns — known as "coulrophobia" — has come to the forefront, fuelled largely by negative associations in the media and pop culture.

"Now as soon as you hear the word 'clown,' it's associated with the serial killer clowns from the movies and John Wayne Gacy," McAndrew said.

Even in the past few years creepy clowns have been making headlines.

There was the clown scare of 2016, when there was a rash of creepy clown sightings across North America. 

And as recently as this fall, characters like Stephen King's Pennywise or the latest version of comic supervillain Joker have been luring millions of people to movie theatres.

Creepy clowns are no joke

Professional clown Beni Malone of Wonderbolt Circus said he's unfazed by the negative representation of clowns.

Malone, a graduate of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, said those fictional characters have nothing to do with the real art of clowning and bear no resemblance to the troupe of hard working comics and acrobats he's worked with.

Beni Malone, the founder of Wonderbolt Circus in St. John's, says clowning has been serious art for him for decades. (Wonderbolt Circus)

He said he was drawn to clowning because of the "fabulous costumes and acrobatics," and he marvelled at their ability to make people smile and laugh even in challenging circumstances.

"For me clowns were kind of like superheroes or almost mythological," he said. "[I] felt to become one was like to become almost beyond humans."

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About the Author

Cherie Wheeler is a Corner Brook radio producer working with CBC Newfoundland Morning.

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