The last wave of terrorizing clowns has raised the question of why so many people are uncomfortable or even fear these characters, which are meant to make people happy

He approaches, wobbling on oversized feet. He holds inflated, deformed objects, has colorful strings coming out of his head, his face covered in heavy make up with a constant, and ridiculously huge smile. It is a….. clown!

In the US the not uncommon phenomenon of people dressed as clowns scaring people at parks and other public places during the night has become even more prevalent following the debut of the film based on Stephen King's book "It", which features a killer clown. In the past few months the phenomenon has spread to other countries, including Israel.

If you are also one of the people who become anxious or at least uncomfortable when encountering a clown, you are not alone. Studies have shown that about one and a half percent of the population suffer from coulrophobia, or irrational fear of clowns. This is also true in children: a study conducted a year ago in the pediatric departments of Carmel hospital in Haifa found that about 1.2% of admitted children were afraid of the hospital clowns that came to entertain them.

Even those of us who do not experience actual fear at the sight of a red nose and ridiculous wigs may still be a little bit suspecting of people who choose to become professional clowns. Participants in a Canadian study rated clowning as the creepiest profession, out of a list of 21 professions, including taxidermist and cemetery manager. Clowns in the US have recently complained that the movie "It" has damaged their reputation. However, it seems our fear of clowns is deeper and much more ancient than that.

Kramer from "Seinfeld" is also afraid of clowns – watch in the following clip:

Where does this fear come from? There are a number of possible answers. Some researchers have pin-pointed the heavy makeup covering the clown's face as a key factor. The makeup hides the clown's identity and also makes it difficult for us to read their facial expressions and understand their intentions: does he want to hurt us or just give us a balloon dog? The exaggerated smile makes it hard to tell, and when we are uncertain, we feel afraid.

Many scary characters in horror movies cover their face in one way or another, and there is nothing coincidental about it. People wearing masks are often people who have something to hide, who are trying to avoid some sort of punishment for their wrongdoings. Some part of their humanity, and of our ability to recognize and understand them, is lost when we cannot "look them in the eye".

Though clowns are supposed to be friendly to everyone, to entertain and not frighten, their makeup is still some sort of mask. It seems that for certain people it provokes the same feelings that other people with covered faces do.

In contrast to them, some researchers think that actually the similarity of the clown's face to a human face, without completely looking human, is what makes us fear them. In order to understand why, we have to dive into the depths of the "uncanny valley".

Same same but different

The term "uncanny valley" was proposed by a Japanese robotics professor, Masahiro Mori, in order to describe how we react to humanlike robots. According to him, the more humanlike the robot, the more people will have a positive reaction to it and empathize with it – but to a certain limit. Robots that would be "too" humanlike, without really being identical to humans, will suffer from a sharp drop in our positive reaction towards them. Something about them will seem "off" to us, not exactly how it should be. Only when they become so humanlike that it would be difficult to tell they are robots, the positive reaction towards them would return.

The uncanny valley is that sharp drop in empathy towards robots when they are very similar, but not quite like humans. This theory explains why Repliee, the robot that is shaped like a woman, makes many of us uncomfortable, while we find Asimo, which only resembles us in its general body shape, to be pretty cute.

הרובוט אסימו דמוי האדם (מימין) נראה לנו חמוד, אבל הרובוטית ריפלי מרתיעה רבים בגלל נסיון להיות דומה מדי | צילומים: ויקיפדיה
Humanlike robot Asimo (on the right) is perceived as cute, but robot Repliee makes many people uncomfortable because she is too humanlike | Photographs: Wikipedia

The phenomenon was first described with relation to robots, but it also applies in other contexts, such as cartoons, dolls and maybe even clowns: characters that look almost humanlike, with a few prominent differences. The makeup-covered face with the large smile resembles a human face, but is also different from it, and this makes us uncomfortable, maybe like the humanlike robots do.

Why does the uncanny valley even exist? Why do we find robots and other creatures that resemble us so repulsive? There is no unequivocal answer to this question, but there are a few hypotheses.

ככל שהרובוט דומה יותר לאדם, ההזדהות עמו עולה, עד הצניחה כשזה דומה מדי | מקור: מסאהירו מורי, עיבוד: מריה גורוחובסקי
The more humanlike the robot, the more affinity we feel towards it, until the drop when it becomes to humanlike | Source: Masahiro Mori, Translated by Karl F. MacDorman and Norri Kageki 

Mori himself thought that the original residents of the valley, before we created robots, cartoons or clowns, were corpses. A corpse looks sort of like a human, but something about it is not right. Also, there is an evolutionary advantage for feeling repulsion towards corpses. It is possible that a mechanism developed in order to ensure that we stay away from dead people is now making us perceive robots and clowns as creepy.

There are other hypotheses as well. It could be, for instance, that incompatibility between different sorts of information, like a robot with a human face that moves it in a non-human manner, make us hesitant and suspicious. Some researchers think that the problem stems from a classification issue: while Asimo is clearly a robot, we are not sure how to classify Repliee – is she a real person or not?

Still, it is difficult to see how these hypotheses explain the very specific repulsion people feel towards clowns, since we obviously know they are human, and they, more or less, move like humans. However, it is possible that they send mixed social signals, like their constant smile, which may not always fit their body language.

Clowns are supposed to entertain and make people laugh, and we still do not exactly know why they provoke exactly the opposite feelings in so many people. The answers to this question may come from the field of robotics, and maybe constructing artificial minds will help us better understand the human mind.

A nice video about the uncanny valley:


Translated by Elee Shimshoni