Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Send In or Send Away - What to do with the Clowns

Hello Friends:

Another survey has come and gone, and once again has given me the opportunity to make broad and sweeping statements based on statistically insignificant data. This, however, sounds much like my career in research science, so I'm going to plow ahead undaunted.

My Opinion of Clowns:
(0) Clowns are great!
(1) Some are funny, some aren't.
(0) No real opinion about clowns.
(3) Clowns are sort of creepy.
(1) Clowns are terrifying!

Who knew that clowns could be a source of controversy? But indeed, they are. Now I knew when I did my bit about being afraid of bats that bats were loved by some (and justly so, given the trillions of bugs they devour each year). However, it never actually occurred to me that anyone loves clowns, which shows you just how out of touch I am. Turns out that the scary/funny debate about clowns is alive and well. Although my 'data' here seems to point to most people thinking clowns are creepy, there are apparently plenty of people who think they are amusing.

I'm not going to go into exhaustive detail, since if you do a google search on this stuff you'll be inundated with the "I hate clowns" posts, the "serial killer who was a clown" reports, and articles on how many people are now afraid of clowns because of Stephen King or The Simpsons (really). Instead I'm going to provide my digest of what I found most interesting, and then my usual spin off into what seems to be going on psychologically.

Some Clown History

There have been clowns, or versions of clowns, around for as much as 5000 years. What we would now think of as circus performers of various types have existed in societies as old as that of the ancient Greeks, and even Egypt. The gamut includes tricksters, magicians, stilt-walkers, hypnotists, jesters, mimes and more. Apparently comics and 'simple minded' people were kept by wealthy families in some ancient cultures as a kind of good luck charm. In the middle ages, court jesters were commonly kept or hired for performances, and traditionally were the only people who could openly poke fun at the members of court, including the King. Modern clowns as we know them came about in the 1800's, and then were modified in America in the early 1900's and during the depression. It was at that time that the idea of the hobo or tramp clown became commonplace.

The theme that seems to go through all of 'clowning' is that these people stood outside of normal social rules and behavior. They could get away with saying and doing things that others could not. Sometimes clowns acted as a voice for the people in satirizing politicians and making fun of the government. Clowns also were used as a sort of societal scapegoat, with the clown's performances having the clown doing menial or even humiliating tasks, and being subjected to taunts and ridicule. Then, of course, there were the comic clowns whose job it was to make sure people were entertained, but they could do so by playing practical jokes, making fun of others, and surprising people with tricks.

On to Clown Fear

Coulrophobia is the fear of clowns. Apparently, and not surprisingly from my perspective, as many as 8 to 15 percent of adults have a fear of clowns to some degree. This isn't a 'hey, I don't like clowns' thing, but a real 'clowns bother me and I'll go out of my way to avoid them' thing. Or up to as bad as the real phobics, who will limit life activities to make certain they never run into clowns, which means avoiding parades, amusement parks, state fairs, and for some, yes ... McDonalds. That aspect of the fear might actually end up extending your life, but of course as with all phobias, it is very painful, causes suffering, and would be nice to banish.

A little over a year ago, a story went around the internet about a hospital in Britain that did some research about how to decorate the pediatric ward. They collected opinions from 250 children ages 4 to 16 - and every single one of them said they did not want clowns decorating the ward (reported in The Telegraph). Now, this wasn't all fear based. Some of the older children said that clowns were babyish and so didn't want the place to be covered in them. But apparently many of the kids at all ages expressed disquiet and even fear about clowns.

Many adults who express a fear of clowns have a particular incident that happened to them as a child that served as a trigger. Usually this incident involved an encounter with a clown, or perhaps a mime, a moving animatronic figure, a costumed figure like a mascot, or some such. A very small number of people seem to have acquired the fear from movies like "It", but getting a real phobia from a movie is very rare. However, the media's portrayal of clowns in the last thirty years has been pretty negative overall. Clowns are a fixture in Halloween scary towns and 'fun' houses, and I for one won't go into one of those things because if a scary clown jumped out at me I'd either pass out, pee myself, or curl up in a ball on the floor. And I don't have a clown phobia, I just think they are creepy. But creepy+Halloween+clown+jumpingoutatyou = dropped brick.

Yes, there is Clown Love

I read through several websites of active, professional clowns. Most of the websites claim that fear of clowns is 'very rare' and something they encounter only occasionally. And yet, all the websites listed the strategies that the clown would go through when dealing with children who were anxious around them. The sites for professional clowns seem to portray the issue as largely a 'fear of clowns' fad with teens, and then an exaggerated sense of clowns as threatening from the media. They try hard to downplay any negative issues with clowns, saying it is all hype and blown out of proportion, as one might expect given that their livelihood and 'clown craft' are dependent on people seeing them in a good light. I expect the truth is probably somewhere in between. (That said, I did find some sites with a more even handed and non-judgmental treatment of the subject, like that on Coulrophobia by Charlie the Juggling Clown).

Regardless of what people might say or post on the internet, the truth is that clowns are a sought after form of entertainment. There are several societies dedicated to the profession, and it is alive and well. In particular, clowns continue to be used in settings where children want or need to be entertained, or even healed. In spite of the research as reported in the Telegraph, above, clowns are a fixture in many children's hospitals and wards. In fact, it has become common enough that studies are being done as to how hospital clowns can be the most effective in helping sick children (Note an article from 2007 in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine).

And for completeness, I'll note that there is a very well known and highly successful 'clown' show that includes heavy makeup, odd behavior, in-your-face antics, and very unpredictable outcomes. This show has been running for a decade, and is adored by many. It also comes with warnings so that people who might be anxious or afraid of getting drawn into the performance, as well as small children, do not attend. Most would not immediately think of it as a clown show, but it has 90% of the hallmarks. Blue Man Group.

Causes of Clown Fears

In ye olden days (like ten years ago) the most common explanation for a fear of clowns (which includes people in unusual costumes and makeup) was that the person in question experienced a traumatic event as a child. However, a significant percentage of phobics reported no childhood trauma they could associate with their fear. The end result was that the phobic's report was often brushed off as the phobic having blocked the event or being too young to remember. As mentioned, some people's fears do stem from a bad encounter with a clown or from a movie, and yet there are many other scary movies and creepy people that do not incite their own phobia after a single viewing or a single event. Given these two factors, it is likely that there and additional, more potent issue in play.

General thinking seems to be coming around to the idea that there is an inherent suspicion or difficulty surrounding masks, makeup, and wildly out of place or exaggerated costuming. Our brains are wired, especially when young, to interpret the signs and signals of others to ensure our social place in the group. Heavy makeup in particular is disturbing because it gives the illusion you can still see the face (not a mask) but it distorts and confuses the facial expressions of the wearer. Young children cannot interpret the expressions of clowns in any way that makes sense, given their previous experience. In addition to this, clowns also act in ways outside of the social norms. They can push physical as well as mental and emotional boundaries, forcing people to get involved in acts or skits, spraying them with water or silly string, and even poking, prodding and grabbing.

With all this fodder it seems likely that a previous traumatized child would certainly be at a risk to develop a clown fear. Add on a scary movie or a bad encounter with a clown, and it becomes even more likely. But it also seems that these primal issues with trying to sort out expressions and social behavior are more than enough to give a certain percentage of otherwise untraumatized people a clown phobia.

It is interesting to note just how professional clowns go about making anxious kids feel more comfortable. They all of their own method, but they often include things like: making sure they are not heavily made up, putting on their makeup and costuming right in front of the children, breaking character to talk to a scared child, acting afraid of the scared child, and letting the scared child order them to do things. These methods for mitigating clown fear seem split into 'costume' related strategies, and 'control' related strategies.

Many clowns note that they are aware their makeup and costume can be daunting, and say right out that if the children can 'see there is a human under there' they are more likely to be comfortable. Clowns also note that a child has to believe they are in control, not the clown. This was especially noted in hospital settings, where so much of a child's control has already been taken from them. If a child sees that a clown is anxious of them, or has the chance to get the clown to take orders from them, they are more calm around the clown.

Okay, I've really beaten this topic into the ground, but after I got into it I just found it so fascinating. I am not a fan of clowns, but now I have a better appreciation for what they are trying to accomplish, and how they do it. I loved Blue Man Group, but was certainly uncomfortable since there is no seeing that show without being a participant. With some things, like clowns, you can't stand back and be on the sidelines.

I know there is something profound in that, but I'm going to quit while I'm ahead.

Your Hostess With Neuroses


europas_ice said...

Interesting post, thanks!

When I was a kid there was a clown giving out candy at the hospital my mom worked at. Mom asked the hospital staff if they had any idea who the clown was, and they didn't, so she wouldn't let us eat the candy. :( Understandable, and the right thing to do. It's just my most interesting clown memory.

I'm not scared of clowns, but I would say they are "kind of creepy", mainly because, as you say, they don't tend to act within social norms, and there's always a danger they could try to drag you into participating in something!

Actually, a discussion of why people acting within "social norms" feel compelled to go along with someone who is acting outside them (eg, a clown) might be interesting.

The Blue Morpho said...

The hospital clown thing - In the past, apparently some professional clowns would just sort of show up at hospitals to entertain, and the staff wouldn't know anything about them. Now most hospitals employ their own clowns, and there is a movement towards a sort of 'standardization' of what they ought to be doing in those environments. So hopefully now kids can eat the candy :)

I do think some people like the freedom of using the clown as their excuse to act silly or do something strange; for some, there is an appeal there. But I agree that I don't want to get pulled into anything if I don't know what's going to happen.

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