Greeting to all and welcome new friends to the EastWing.
With Halloween fast approaching I’m thinking about those strange things that go bump in the night. By now everyone’s heard about the creepy clowns terrorizing the countryside since late summer. This craze that sees people dress up in sinister costumes has caused problems for police departments across the country and scared half to death those who encountered these clowns in the dark.
The clown trend appears to have gone global. In the UK, Thames Valley police said it had responded to 14 sightings of clowns over a 24-hour period, while Cambria police said it had received reports of nine clown sightings, including one holding a knife.
Now don’t let anyone tell you your fear of clowns is irrational. There are perfectly sound psychological reasons for being creeped out by these nuts with painted faces. Strange and unusual faces makes us feel uncomfortable. That is one of the reasons we find clowns so frightening. They just look too quare.
Clowns are supposed to be fun, playful and reminiscent of childhood innocence. But as far back as the 16th century, Shakespearean jesters were often associated with death and darkness. This image has continued through to today in the way they are depicted in popular culture. So while we want to be lulled into a sense of childlike security with a favorite toy, we sense that something much more sinister lies behind the painted face of a clown.
We are social beings and as such we’ve evolved the ability to read themes such as safety and danger based on facial expressions and body language. Clowns hide behind masks, preventing us from seeing what they are feeling, thinking or even guessing their true emotions. A mask not only hides appearance, it hides intent, and when we are unsure of the intent of the person across from us, it makes us scared.
Researchers who study facial attractiveness note that most of what we find attractive is socially constructed. Skin color, eye shape and lip size are such things. Two things that are natural are facial symmetry and “averageness,” or not having features that stand out too prominently from the norm. Clowns defy both of these. Their faces are painted to be particularly asymmetrical and exaggerated, so when we look at their face we have a natural aversion to them. We are looking into the face of the unknown and don’t like it. Much of a clown’s performance repertoire depends on making us laugh and connecting with us so we find ourselves feeling a kind of cognitive difference between being repulsed and being engaged.
Our culture has always been littered with references to evil clowns, from children’s entertainer-turned-serial killer John Wayne Gacy to Pennywise, the character in Stephen King’s “It.” The association between clowns and danger has been consistently reinforced over the past few decades, and as such we are more likely to adopt a view of them as being frightening because we have learned to see them that way. We as logical beings naturally fear the illogical. Clowns exemplify the illogical.
They are human enough to be recognizable but removed enough from normality to be odd and unfamiliar. So they ensure that their physical gestures are common but also grossly exaggerated: If a important characteristic such as a tear is present, it’s depicted as flat and comical.
Because the image of the clown is distorted but still recognizable it invites us to try and understand what is really going on. We engage not necessarily because we’re entertained, but because we’re confused.
So while we understand a smile, we don’t feel comfortable with one that never fades, and that’s the scary part, the awareness that what we’re looking at is actually hiding something that we don’t quite understand. So we’re afraid of that face
The same facial expression, that smile, used by Hillary Clinton at the final Presidential Debate.
From The EastWing, Bring On The Clowns, Hillary Smiles
I Wish You Well,