“I had a friend who was a clown. When he died, all his friends went to the funeral in one car” – Steven Wright
I don’t fear clowns. At least not the ones that aren’t out to murder me. Yet, I have the sneaking suspicion that they’re all out to murder me. Okay, so maybe I have a fear of clowns. What’s your point? Those of us who grew up at the time when infamous clown and serial killer John Wayne Gacey was in the headlines and Stephen King was jotting down the antics of Pennywise, generally shrug our shoulders, and attribute our relative intolerance of clowns to the object proof we have that sometimes clowns are indeed out to kill us, but is this enough of an explanation to merit the almost universal fear and loathing of them?
Given the past few decades of bad press for clowns and an oeuvre that involves simulated degradation and humiliation, it takes a hard man to play the role. And that is deeply concerning for the rest of us as it suggest high potential for acting out. In the past, I considered the madness that drives a man to be a clown, the recapitulation of the trickster motif, and the possibility that the only other time our features are frozen into a preternatural grimace are by the mortician as potential sources of the liminal position vis a vis reality that strikes terror in our hearts when faced with the harlequin (outside the properly contained circus environment). Then I got out of grad school and stopped writing sentences like that whenever possible. Now, given the recent spate of evil clown sightings (such as the all too recent Greenville, South Carolina flap), I’m starting to reconsider. Not my stance on the clowns that so clearly want to smother me in my sleep or overcomplicated grammatical constructions, rather the nature of our generalized fear of clowns. Our suspicion that beneath the makeup of the clown and his hilarious antics lays a boiling cauldron of homicidal psychosis may very well be tracked to the relation of the clown to “the uncanny”, or more precisely, what robotics researchers have more recently termed, “the uncanny valley”.
First, what makes something “uncanny”. Obvious intent to murder ranks pretty high, but let’s set that aside for a moment, and examine what it is that arouses the sense that any given phenomena is “uncanny”. Ernst Anton Jentsch (1867-1919) was a German psychiatrist whose exploration of the psychology of the uncanny had an enormous influence on Sigmund Freud. Jentsch argued that the feelings of uncertainty that arise when presented with an object whose animate nature is in question, lead to a distinct sense of existential vertigo, where the very nature of life, volition, and consciousness presents itself as problematic.
Among all the psychical uncertainties that can become a cause for the uncanny feeling to arise, there is one in particular that is able to develop a fairly regular, powerful and very general effect: namely, doubt as to whether an apparently living being really is animate and, conversely, doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate – and more precisely, when this doubt only makes itself felt obscurely in one’s consciousness (Jetnsch, 1906, p8).
Freud took up Jentsch’s notion of the uncanny and ran with it, trying to understand the uncanny in terms of how what is superficially familiar can turn terrifying, concluding that the sensation of something as uncanny is rooted in when something heretofore symbolic faces us as a fully-fledged, living and breathing entity.
An uncanny effect is often and easily produced by effacing the distinction between imagination and reality, such as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions and significance of the thing it symbolizes, and so on. It is this element which contributes not a little to the uncanny effect attaching to magical practices (Freud, 1919).
The idea is that when we recognize the symbolic nature of our fears, an animate object that presents us with an actualization of those fears before our very eyes possesses with a sense that something is decidedly wrong. Clown theorists such as Jon Davison, Director of Studies at the Escola de Clown de Barcelona have long maintained that “Clown logic does not have an essential meaning other than to contradict the environment in which the clown appears,” that is, that a clown exists to transgress, but beyond that the clown is the animation of symbolic transgression, violating social norms and polite behavior all willy-nilly in search of a laugh. But there is a dark side. Modern robotics researchers are earnestly concerned with whether we should make our robots more human-like. The prime motivator behind this is no doubt the same one that drives the internet. Porn. Don’t act all innocent. You know what I’m talking about. The problem with such considerations is that experiments in robotics and 3D animation have demonstrated the existence of what is called, “the uncanny valley”. The idea of the uncanny valley is that human replicas that appear almost, but not exactly like real human beings engender eeriness and revulsion among some observers, a relation that otherwise increases with the replica’s human likeness (MacDorman & Chattopadhyay, 2016). This is to say, if it looks like a human, but gives off all sort of subtle cues that it is not abiding too closely to human rules, we get creeped out.
Now, theoretically, when faced with what appears to be an animate object, normal human cognitive mechanisms kick in, demanding we involuntarily assess such things as affect mate selection (low fertility, poor hormonal health, or ineffective immune systems based on visible features of the face and body), mortality (playing on our subconscious fear that we are really all just soulless machines), and the expectation that something that looks “almost human” will conform to our behavioral expectations. The frozen grimace of the clown and the deliberate violation of customary norms present us with the same problem as the all-too-human robot, eliciting fear and revulsion. It is the same reason we find zombies so terrifying, as they represent what otherwise looks human, but is wholly other.
How does this explain the recent upswing in evil clown sightings? While I can’t rule out the emboldening of the ill-intentioned clown as an offshoot of the current political environment, or that clowns themselves have simply been pushed too far, it would seem more likely that the evil clowns have always been lurking at the margins of civilized society, waiting for the opportunity to transgress on a grand scale. The clown is a source of terror as it represents what it means to be human without restraint. And the clown demonstrates the general absurdity of those things we hold dear. What could be more frightening? As Shakespeare said, “Jesters do oft prove prophets”. And while that is no doubt an important role in our information saturated society, I’m still pretty sure they want to kill me.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny”. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, 1919.
Jentsch, Ernst, 1867-. Zur Psychologie Des Unheimlichen. Halle A.S., 1906.
MacDorman, K. F., & Chattopadhyay, D. “Reducing consistency in human realism increases the uncanny valley effect; increasing category uncertainty does not”. Cognition, 146, 2016.