It is timely to think about fears and stigma. It was world mental health day in November. Horror film tropes include lazy uninformed ideas about people with mental health problems, dolls, scary children, and sometimes a combination of these. We are particularly focused on clowns at the moment, in the run up to Hallowe’en. People love to be frightened, and to frighten: the arousal of excitement is neurologically very similar to that of fear and anger. This is why we like rollercoasters.
Why are we scared of clowns? Perhaps it is the exaggerated fixed expressions that are not changing – we read lots from someone’s face. Without it, we struggle to identify emotions, thoughts and intentions. Our amygdala (the is-it-a-threat? centre of the brain) cannot establish if there is a threat. People often also struggle with visible difference and people who don’t look familiar; unfamiliarity can be scary.
People are drawn to childlike things like dolls, children’s music boxes, the sound of children laughing, and a rocking horse, rocking all by itself… We are also influenced by media such as Stephen King’s “IT”, The Joker from Batman comics. I note that Stephen King has an opinion and has been tweeting about coulrophobia and scary clowns recently.
We are disturbed by things that don’t fit neatly into boxes; Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable: consider twisted innocence and malignant fun. For example, Chucky from “Child’s Play” takes the innocence of a toy doll and poisons it. We are lulled into a false sense of security; taking something safe and making it dangerous. Some of this is related to the human disgust response as well as our fear response. It is distasteful to take something pure and soil it; think about mouldy food with maggots, or perhaps a child who is the devil in “The Omen”. We are vulnerable when we relax – the false endings of horror films “Friday the 13th”; It’s all over… Phew. Oh no, it isn’t. The Sucker punch.
A Social Psychology study showed that we end up disliking people more if we liked them to begin with. Superheroes and their arch nemesis were often friends beforehand – Peter Parker and the Green Goblin, Superman and Lex Luthor, Professor X and Magneto.
Masks, face paint and disguise are about anonymity – people can do things without consequence or retribution – similarities with online abuse. Also Hitchcock demonstrated that to make something scary, you don’t show it. You hint at it.
So, clowns are scary because we can’t see who they are, what they are feeling or thinking, or what their intentions are. They can be scary because they can be corrupted and twisted from something pure and good. Most of all, they are scary because the media says they are.
Dr Ian Newey, Lead Clinical Psychologist, works with wonderful young people with mental health problems at the Huntercombe Hospital Norwich. He has a fear of clowns.
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