Given the noble mission of the annual Shrine Circus in Albuquerque, I feel a bit remiss using this event as a jumping-off point to explore the fact that polls show more Americans are afraid of clowns than are afraid of climate change.
The classic three-ring Shrine Circus, which will have eight shows at Tingley Coliseum Friday through Sunday, is a yearly fundraising event for Ballut Abyad Shriners, the Albuquerque branch of the international fraternal organization. Some of the funds raised will go to Shriner Hospitals for Children in North America, which is almost enough to make me want to go. Except I, like 42 percent of Americans, hate clowns, and there will be clowns.
According to science, clowns are scary to some of us because they present an ambiguity of threat. Psychologist Frank T. Andrew Ph.D. was the first academic to empirically study the phenomenon of being freaked out by clowns. In his landmark study of generalized creepiness (which is to say, what most people find to be creepy and why) Andrew recruited 1,341 volunteers and asked them rate creepiness across 44 different behaviors and 21 different occupations.
Unsurprisingly, clowns topped the list as the creepiest effing people in our society. They were closely followed by undertakers and morticians. In a separate survey of children in kids’ hospitals, the vast majority reported not liking artwork in their rooms that depicted clowns, citing scariness as the reason.
“The results indicate that people we perceive as creepy are much more likely to be male than female (as are most clowns),” Andrew wrote in a column on the Psychology Today website explaining his study. Further, “unpredictability is an important component of creepiness, and that unusual patterns of eye contact and other nonverbal behaviors set off our creepiness detectors.”
Andrew’s research states that exaggerated appearance is secondary to the general mistrust factor, but others argue that the discomfort many feel upon looking at clowns is related to something called the “uncanny valley” effect embedded deep within the human brain.
The uncanny valley effect was coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, to describe the revulsion we feel when we see something that seems almost human, but not quite. It can be one of the most disconcerting experiences a human can experience, and occurs when viewing a corpse or marionette, or a clown.
Many scientific experiments confirm that this discomfort with visually almost-right phenomenon is upsetting not just to humans, but to all primates. David Leopold and Nikos K. Logothetis, writing in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science, describe the way humans and other primates react negatively to what they call “multistable phenomena,” or ambiguous visual figures. It seems we just don’t tolerate visually freaky humanoid things very well, even if they make us balloon animals.
Though some version of clowns have been with us since recorded society began, usually in a comedic capacity, the modern circus clown has only been around since the 19th century. There is some debate about whether clowns have always been scary, or whether this is a relatively recent phenomenon due in part to highly publicized “evil clowns” such as serial killer and rapist John Wayne Gacy who dressed as a clown, and popular culture images such as Stephen King’s Pennywise, the gutter-dwelling demon-clown in the story It, or the comedic drunk clown Krusty on “The Simpsons.”
In his book Bad Clowns, local Albuquerque author Benjamin Radford argues that it is difficult to truly separate out the good clowns from the bad, for all clowns, he says, contain both good and bad, because they are human. That said, he suggests that the Western idea of a scary clown might have germinated in the character of Harlequin the Clown in Paris in 1585, in a poem representing him as “a kind of diabolical acrobat.”
That Albuquerque has a circus available to it this weekend, replete with clowns and trained elephants, is somewhat remarkable when one considers the state of affairs for circuses and animal-performance entertainment in general in the nation. The most famous circus of all, Ringling Bros. Circus, went out of business after 133 years, in 2017. This came about after a steep drop in ticket sales that has been attributed to public outcry against the treatment of wild animals in circuses. SeaWorld has seen a similar decline in ticket sales for similar reasons. I do wonder, though, whether the lackluster appeal of circuses in general could also have to do with the changing image of the clown in pop culture.
That this event is sponsored by a fraternal organizations for grown men is also remarkable, considering that the culture seems intent upon making such groups anachronisms. Membership in such groups is in a freefall, not just nationally but globally. The Shriners peaked with more than 1 million members in 1978, but 350,000 members now. The Lions, Masons and Kiwanis report similar dips.