Send in the Clowns

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

Wobbling on oversized feet they approache, bearing inflated, deformed objects; their head adorned with colorful strings and their face covered in heavy white make-up with a constant, absurdly wide grin. It’s a… clown!

The phenomenon of clown figures scaring people in parks and other public places during the night for their own pleasure is not uncommon in the US. It has become even more prevalent following the debut of the film based on Stephen King’s It, which features a killer clown. Over the past months, the phenomenon has spread to other countries, including Israel.

If you, too, are anxious or at least uncomfortable upon encountering a clown, you are not alone. Studies have shown that about one and a half percent of the population suffer from coulrophobia – irrational fear of clowns. The same is also true for children: a study conducted a year ago in the pediatric departments of Carmel Medical Center 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 in response to a facetiously red nose and ridiculous wigs may still be somewhat 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 It has damaged their reputation. However, it seems our fear of clowns is deeper and much more ancient than that.

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

Where does this fear come from? There are a number of possible answers. Some researchers refer to the heavy makeup covering the clown's face as the key factor. The makeup not only hides the clown's identity, it also makes it difficult for us to read their facial expressions and understand their intentions: do they want to hurt us or just give us a balloon dog? The exaggerated smile makes it hard to tell, and, when 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 disguising themselves with masks often have something to hide, perhaps in an effort to avoid some sort of punishment for their wrongdoings. A part of their humanity, and of our ability to understand and identify with them, is lost when we cannot “look them in the eye.”

Although clowns are supposed to be all-around friendly, to amuse and not frighten, their makeup is ultimately a mask of sorts. It seems that for some people, it evokes feelings similar to those provoked by other masked individuals.

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

Same same but different

The term "uncanny valley" was proposed by a Japanese robotics professor, Masahiro Mori, in an attempt to describe how we react to humanlike robots. According to Mori, the more humanlike the robot, the more people will have a positive, empathetic response to it – to a certain limit. Robots that appear almost, but not exactly, like humans, would encounter a sharp drop in our positive emotional response towards them. Something about them will seem "off" to us, not exactly how it should be. Only when they become so humanlike so as to be indistinguishable from humans, would the positive reaction towards them return.

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


Humanoid robot Asimo (on the right) is perceived to be cute, but robot Repliee makes many people uncomfortable because she is too humanlike | Photographs: Wikipedia

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

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


The more humanlike the robot, the more affinity we feel towards it, until the dip, where it becomes too humanlike | Source: Masahiro Mori, Translated by Karl F. MacDorman and Norri Kageki

Mori himself thought that Uncanny Valley’s original residents, 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 the dead is now making us perceive robots and clowns as creepy.

There are also other hypotheses. 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 in with their body language.

Clowns are supposed to entertain and make people laugh, and we still do not exactly know why they provoke the exact 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