The Real Reason Clowns Creep Us Out

This content has been archived. It may no longer be accurate or relevant.

PG couldn’t make a firm connection between this article and the writers’ world (other than some horror fiction), but thought it was interesting.

From National Geographic:

Clowns are creeping across America, lurking in the woods and generally freaking out the general public.

Over the past few months, “clown sightings” have become a thing, occupying a dark crevice in the popular imagination that was once filled by UFO or Slender Man sightings. And like all viral trends, this one is spreading, with creepy-clown alerts popping up in England, Australia, Canada, and Scotland. Whether they’re teenage pranksters, a movie-marketing ploy, figments of the imagination, or really out to do harm (all possibly true in some cases), the clowns are universally described with one word: creepy.

But why are clowns so creepy? And why are they suddenly popping up all over? Luckily, scientists are giving this some thought, and clown sightings turn out to be a perfect case study on the nature of creepiness—and what makes an idea go viral.

“In many ways, clowns combine a perfect storm of freaky things,” says Frank McAndrew, a social psychologist who published the first large study of creepiness just this year.

Not only are they mischievous and strange looking, McAndrew says, but behind the makeup you can’t tell who clowns are or what they’re really feeling.

That has led some people to speculate that clowns are creepy because they fall into what’s known as the uncanny valley, a not-quite-human appearance often ascribed to robots. The idea is that we like and feel empathy for robots that look somewhat human-like (think C-3P0), but are repulsed by those that look too human.

So, the thinking goes, clowns scare us because they blur the lines of looking human, with heavy makeup distorting their features—not to mention those huge feet and bizarre hair.

. . . .


And clowns, let’s not forget, haven’t always been loathed. If the uncanny valley alone were the problem, we’d expect clowns and other heavily made-up actors to have always elicited feelings of creepiness. Yet there have been many beloved clowns (such as Clarabell and Bozo), and I remember when clowns were perfectly acceptable decoration for a child’s room.

That tracks with what McAndrew found in his study, where he surveyed more than 1,300 people to figure out what behaviors and physical characteristics people find creepy. The common factor was unpredictability.

“It is only when we are confronted with uncertainty about a threat that we get the chills,” he writes in an article about psychology. “It would be considered rude and strange to run away in the middle of a conversation with someone who is sending out a creepy vibe but is actually harmless; at the same time, it could be perilous to ignore your intuition and engage with that individual if he is, in fact, a threat. The ambivalence leaves you frozen in place, wallowing in discomfort.”

. . . .

Harvard computer scientist Michele Coscia studies what makes an idea go viral online—or not—and he says he’s surprised that the creepy-clown meme is being revamped so successfully.

He has shown that most memes—whether an image, phrase, or idea like creepy clowns—fizzle because they fail to differentiate themselves from the competition. And creepy clowns have already flooded the marketplace of ideas, starring in horror movies for years.

“My theory would say, Well, this meme is not novel, so it should not be likely to go viral,” Coscia says. “Yet, it did. So you could say that my theory in this case fails.”

But Coscia has a hypothesis. When he looks at a meme on social websites like Reddit, he can create a measure called “canonicity” for it—how unusual it is. Lower canonicity means the idea is more unusual, and more likely to go viral. In the case of creepy-clown sightings, “there were prank memes and creepy clowns, but not the conjunction of the two,” Coscia says.

And boom—a new, low-canonicity idea was born, primed to go viral.

Then social psychology kicked in. “Social media fans the flames by giving us a false sense of how widespread something is and how threatened we should be feeling,” McAndrew says. “Better to err on the side of caution by protecting your children from killer clowns than to err in the other direction. We now have the ability to sound alarms and spread rumors with a megaphone, and we never pass up the opportunity to do so.”

Link to the rest at National Geographic

PG was intrigued by “canonicity” and did a little research. As you might have suspected from the root word, canon, there are religious connections.


How do we know that the 66 books in our Bible are the only inspired books? Who decided which books were truly inspired by God? The Roman Catholic Bible includes books that are not found in other Bibles (called the Apocrypha). How do we know that we as Protestants have the right books? These questions are addressed by a study of canonicity.

“Canon” is a word that comes from Greek and Hebrew words that literally means a measuring rod. So canonicity describes the standard that books had to meet to be recognized as scripture.

On the one hand, deciding which books were inspired seems like a human process. Christians gathered together at church councils in the first several centuries A.D. for the purpose of officially recognizing which books are inspired. But it’s important to remember that these councils did not determine which books were inspired. They simply recognized what God had already determined.

. . . .

Tests of Canonicity

The early church councils applied several basic standards in recognizing whether a book was inspired.

A. Is it authoritative (“Thus saith the Lord”)?

B. Is it prophetic (“a man of God” 2 Peter 1:20)?

– A book in the Bible must have the authority of a spiritual leader of Israel (O.T. – prophet, king, judge, scribe) or and apostle of the church (N.T. – It must be based on the testimony of an original apostle.).

C. Is it authentic (consistent with other revelation of truth)?

D. Is it dynamic – demonstrating God’s life-changing power (Hebrew 4:12)?

E. Is it received (accepted and used by believers – 1 Thessalonians 2:13)?

Link to the rest at

PG read a few other items relating to canonicity, for example, discussions of how books entered the canons of English and American literature.

This raised a question in PG’s struggling mind:

Are there canons for genres of fiction? What are tests of canonicity?

  1. Are there Romance novels that should be canons of the genre? What would the tests of canonicity be?
  2. Ditto for Science Fiction and Fantasy (PG nominates Dune)
  3. Detective fiction?

He concluded that while some canons are formal (see above), there are other canons (see clowns and canonicity above) which are much less formalized.

Used generally, PG suggests that canons need not be written, but may come into being from widely understood and accepted truths concerning various subjects.

For example:

  1. Are there canons relating to Amazon? Things that are more or less Amazonian? Items or events that should not be included in the canons of Amazon at all?
  2. How about Apple canons?
  3. With respect to Amazon or Apple, are there identifiable elements of either organization that can be designated of low canonicity?

PG is happy to view responses to this topic in the comments. However, he will be neither offended nor surprised if visitors to TPV have better things to write about.


24 thoughts on “The Real Reason Clowns Creep Us Out”

    • I grew up watching Bozo the Clown and loving it. Definitely agree with you. I’ve also never been scared of clowns in the circus. The only clowns that scare me are the ones that are designed to scare.

  1. By that definition, every “best 100 books” list is a canon to define the genre. Best 100 fantasy novels, Best 100 American mysteries, best 100 Bristish mysteries, best 100 science fiction books of the 20th century, etc.

    I nominate Georgette Heyer’s regency novels to be the canon on which all other regency romances are based.

  2. I’d never heard the word canonicity, so I learned something here. And I love your questions about genre canon. I’d love to see somebody put together a list of canonical romance (Georgette Heyer? Nora Roberts? Jane Austen?) Sci-Fi (Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and yes, of course Frank Herbert…), mystery, etc. Intriguing post!

  3. Canonical has a special meaning in math and computer science. A canonical representation of an object represents each possible example of the object uniquely. A frequent example is representing positive integers as a sequence of the characters 0 through 9. Every possible positive integer can be represented exactly and uniquely as a sequence of those characters, although very large numbers will take a lot of characters.

    There can be more than one canonical representation. Hexadecimal and binary numbers work just as well as decimal numbers for representing positive integers. Binary only uses 0 and 1. Hexadecimal uses 0-9 and “a”, “b”, “c”, “d”, “e”, and “f” but both can still represent any positive integer nicely.

    However, real numbers, which include negative and positive numbers, repeating decimals (like one third), and non repeating decimals (like the square root of two or pi, the ratio between the diameter and circumference of a circle) are more challenging to represent canonically.

    As an exercise for the reader, figure out if the amazon catalog contains a canonical representation of independently published books. If not why not? Could there be a canonical representation of indie books?

      • Thank you! I have an idea in the cooker to write a book on numbers and computing for 10-year olds. Something I would have liked to read at that age. I think I can still remember that far back. You’ve encouraged me!

  4. Clowns are creepy because they’ve always been creepy to some people.

    I’m just glad streaming online video of kids wasn’t a thing the first time I saw a clown up close. I turned around and there it was. My grandpa thought I’d love it. I’d never have lived that down. I punched it in the gonads and ran screaming like my hair was on fire. From the tales told, apparently I used language that my grandparents didn’t even know I had heard before. Loudly.

    • Ah, the little things ‘surprise’ will bring out of us all.

      In programming we say that you should never test for a condition you don’t know how to handle the output of.

      I got to watch a friend sneak up and playfully grab his girlfriend. Unfortunately for him she had already seen a couple rather shady types in the area and was ‘alert’ and ready to defend herself. And the idiot had gone through the same self-defense classes with her … I took a couple bruises myself getting her off him and out of action/reaction mode. (The chat with the cops was quite fun ‘stupid boyfriend was stupid’, and it helped that the only marks on her was where her hands/fists/knees had landed blows on him. 😉 )

      Which is why I try not to surprise people too ‘badly’ – and why I run if I hear “Here, hold my beer and watch this!” 😛

  5. “Clowns are creeping across America, lurking in the woods and generally freaking out the general public.”

    “Over the past few months, “clown sightings” have become a thing, …”

    Good thing the scariest of those clowns will be off the TV’s after the sixth of next month.

    The only canon I worry about is that of the world/universe I’m writing in – and who/what I have to check with to see if I’m bending those rules/laws correctly. 😉

  6. The articles about Clowns are definitely useful to writers. They always go into my story folder. I have at least two or three books planned, maybe even five, about when the Clowns come for people.

    “As the circle of light increases, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.”

    — Albert Einstein

    Standing just outside that circle of light, unable to step forward, some thing is watching you.

    In the meantime, be sure that there are large mirrors always in sight, that will keep them at bay. The last thing a clown wants to do is see themselves revealed in a mirror.

  7. Re: human startle reactions…

    We come from a long line of ancestors who decided to run when the bush rustled, instead of sticking around to see it if was a tiger or a squirrel.

    When we can’t assign predictable behavior to an animate object, we are evolutionarily correct to be very wary indeed (c.f., “Darwinian fail”).

      • You need one of those t-shirts saying ‘warning – easily triggered! and you may not survive my reaction!’ on it.

        Or one that says ‘go ahead – try to surprise me (and in very little letters – I double-dog-dare you!’) 😉

Comments are closed.