Creepy clown sightings across the United States are no laughing matter. Glimpses of disturbing clowns began in South Carolina in August, but the phenomenon of pranksters in sinister costumes has become so widespread that it was even mentioned at a White House news conference.
How could lovable childhood entertainers be put to such menacing use? Though some people have full-blown claudrophobia, a fear of clowns, many others simply experience unease around them. In fact, there’s a long history of disturbing clowns, and one of the key psychological reasons why many run from them can be traced back to Sigmund Freud.
The founder of psychoanalysis wrote an essay on “The Uncanny” where he showed that, in many languages, the word for “uncanny” is very similar to the word for “familiarity.” For example, the German word for uncanny, unheimlich, is the opposite of heimlich, which means “familiar” or “belonging to the home.”
Steven Schlozman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who’s taught an undergraduate course on the psychology of horror, explains that for Freud, something’s uncanny if it’s almost familiarly recognizable, but somehow a little bit off. That’s why creatures that are almost human-like, but not quite—such as zombie with a disintegrating face, or someone with grotesquely deformed facial features—evoke a creepy reaction. A clown’s face, where familiar facial features are distorted and exaggerated using makeup, exemplifies this uncanny standard. As Freud writes in his paper, creepy and familiar aren’t simply opposites, but closely intertwined. “Unheimlich is in some way or other a sub-species of Heimlich,” he states.
Psychiatrist Chris Heath, member of the American Psychoanalytic Association, adds that the “familiar” element of creepiness isn’t just something we’re acquainted with, but a familiar repressed childhood feeling. “Things are creepy when they invoke memories of a time when we believed this thing to be true,” he says. “For instance, magic or the undead.” Our reaction to clowns is so strong, he argues, because they remind us of our now-repressed childhood belief that clowns—with their big feet and honking noses—are real, ridiculous people, rather than men in over-the-top dress up.
Crucially, Freud believed that our reaction to creepiness was a primitive fight or flight response, rather than a rational reaction. When you see something creepy, “you do the double take even before you know why you do the double take,” says Schlozman.
Though Freud’s precise definition of the unconscious is still disputed, Scholzman notes that neuroscience fMRI studies have shown that our reaction to creepy objects takes place in lower brain functions before reaching higher brain functions, showing that this is indeed a highly visceral response. And studies show we do have that instinctive creepy reaction to images that blurs the line between human and distorted—things that are almost familiar, but not quite.
Of course, Freud’s theories on repression are very much disputed. But he was right to note that the uncanny is closely linked to the familiar, and that our response is instinctive. A phobia of clowns may not be rational but, as Freud argued, many of our most powerful instincts are driven by our unconscious.