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Don't Send in the Clowns

Why would someone derive joy from scaring children – or adults, for that matter?

A search for “fear of clowns” on the Internet reveals numerous references to "coulrophobia," a name given to fear of clowns, although it is not a term recognized in the DSM-5, the document currently used to diagnose mental illnesses. Diagnosable or not, most of us know of someone who is ferociously afraid of clowns – any clowns.

The current “Creepy Clown” phenomena, particularly as we approach Halloween, is of concern to most of us in the mental health field.

Fear of things we should fear is healthy. We should fear being caught if we are doing something wrong. We should fear getting cavities if we don’t brush our teeth. We should fear someone approaching who has harmed us before. A healthy fear response motivates is to positive action. However, inducing fear just because one can is not a good thing. Let’s consider the biology of the fear response.

Victims of assaults and accidents sit frozen in emergency rooms. Traumatized children become mute, simply screaming. Inside their bodies, a frightened person’s pulse races and his breathing becomes rapid, sometimes to the point of panting. The stomach becomes upset, possibly inducing vomiting. Some people pass out. Adults, with their brains fully developed by their mid-twenties, can handle fear better than children, whose brains are still developing, but even the adult brain can only take so much.

The challenging thing about fear is that once experienced deeply, it is easily re-triggered. The slightest resemblance to something that was previously frightening can trigger the same response. Maybe that’s why clowns are so frightening to some people. They look far from ordinary. Children need warm, loving, smiling faces from safe people. Enter a clown – or even Santa Claus. Of course, children cry!

​Enter a clown or Santa Claus to a healthy adult, and most of them can tolerate it well. However, people who have previously experienced traumatic events, for example the 20% of us who suffer from PTSD, have the exaggerated response described above. For them, it takes a long time to calm down, sometimes hours. This is totally unnecessary fear with no redeeming purpose.

Why the “creepy clown” phenomena now? One might hedge a guess that it has to do with the generalized fear and anxiety that many Americans are feeling. What do unhealthy people do who are afraid? They try to have more power and control over other people. It’s like the domestic violence perpetrator who uses fear to keep his victim in line. Only when she is afraid, can he feel that he has control over her.

So what can we do, given the potential of a “Creepy Clown” Halloween? Don’t dress up like a creepy clown yourself or allow your child to dress like one. Rather than walking your child through the neighborhood, seek out emotionally safe events such as church and community carnivals or the many faith communities that offer “Trunk or Treat” with car trunks open and filled with safe and healthy goodies for the children. Organize your own Halloween party and keep it emotionally safe.

​There are enough very real scary things going on in our communities and our world. Let’s not add to it with absolutely unnecessary fear.

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