A Harvard professor explains why clowns are so scary

“We register viscerally that it’s not normal”

Steven C. Schlozman, M.D. is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He’s a fan of horror films featuring clowns, and he also teaches a freshman seminar called “Horror in Literature and Movies: Cultural, Psychological, and Scientific Aspects of the Horror Genre.”

The Tab spoke to him about the recent reports of scary clown sightings around the US and now the UK.

What do you make of the recent clown sightings across the country? What makes them so frightening?

It’s an interesting blossoming of social media mixing with actual events (as opposed to virtual events) and drawing from older (but not super-old) tropes. Clowns have always been a little bit jarring. They’re always smiling, so you gotta wonder what they’re actually feeling. They’re enhanced and exaggerated and often a bit grotesque in their still recognizable features, so we recognize a human-like face, but we also register, viscerally, that it’s not normal.

We probably recognize that things are off with clowns even before we cognitively know things are off. That’s how pattern recognition works – we’re primed to pick out the unfamiliar from the familiar, and our brains evolve to distrust the unfamiliar. In the case of clowns, they are in fact familiar (i.e. we can identify a clown) but that jarring experience is part of the recognition. If we went around, everyone, dressed as clowns, over time I’d guess they’d become less jarring. There’s also context to consider. A clown at a rodeo doesn’t bug folks. A clown in your backyard does.

Are the clowns part of some kind of hoax?

Don’t know, but that’s my guess. That’s especially if you broadly define hoax. Might be viral marketing. Then there might be a contagion effect – other people just dressing as clowns for kicks.

Why are they so common in horror films?

They haven’t always been, but once they were introduced into the horror cannon (Stephen King’s It and other films), they stuck around. Horror is highly derivative. The same themes and memes get recycled to create a sense of familiarity and belonging among horror enthusiasts.

Have there been any reported sightings in the Boston area?

Not that I know of.