The Real Reason Clowns Creep Us Out

The Real Reason Clowns Creep Us Out

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.

Read More: Nat Geo

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