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Saturday 10 December 2016

Creepy killer clowns tap into deep fear of human psyche

Eamon Dillon

Published 16/10/2016 | 02:30

Pranksters dressing up as creepy clowns to frighten unsuspecting onlookers has become a global phenomenon (picture posed) Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Pranksters dressing up as creepy clowns to frighten unsuspecting onlookers has become a global phenomenon (picture posed) Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Killer clowns, whether armed with chainsaws, machetes or nothing but a twisted smile, are tapping into a deep-seated fear.

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A global phenomenon, in which pranksters dress up as disturbing clowns, has been doing the rounds and this week, made an appearance on the grounds of a Dublin school.

The fake chainsaw and hammer-wielding clowns turned out to be two actors from Cork-based troupe The Nightmare Realm, who were filming a promotional video - although not before near hysteria had been created.

The recent upsurge in the appearance of creepy clowns began this year in the United States, where reports of sinister figures are continuing to appear in increasing numbers.

The US, more than anywhere, has an edgy relationship with clowns thanks to the real-life crimes of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who killed 33 teenage boys and young men between 1973 and 1978. In between murders, he raised money at charity events dressed as Pogo the Clown.

Dr Robert King a lecturer of Applied Psychology at University College Cork, and published expert on horror, explained the real-life killer feeds into the cultural fear of clowns.

"He's a psychopath's psychopath. Gacy used to dress as a clown, abduct young men, torture them and make furniture out of them," he said.

Surprisingly, scary clowns are nothing new as fans of Batman already know, thanks to The Joker. Yet even that character had its roots in a 1928 German expressionist movie The Man Who Laughs, based on a Victor Hugo novel published in 1869.

"It's quite unsettling - you look at a movie from 1928 and The Joker appears and he's a much scarier Joker than the modern Batman one," said Dr King.

Masks and warpaint have been used by soldiers and tribal warriors for centuries, not to just to strike fear into the enemy but also to shake off inhibitions that normally stop people from carrying out inhumane acts of violence.

"Once you are hard to identify, you are much more likely to do things that are inhumane. Anthropologists have found this for a long time. People wearing mask are more likely to inflict pain on people," explained Dr King.

What people find difficult to deal with when it comes to clowns, is the uncertainty about whether they should be laughing or screaming in terror.

"There's a concept in artificial intelligence called the 'Uncanny Valley', which is that as faces become more and more human, it's okay, as long as they stay inhumane, and okay if they look really human. But there's an in-between stage and that creeps us out," said Dr King. "I think clowns fall into that category. They are human enough, pressing all the buttons - 'This is a human being' - but they also might do something that's weird and unexpected and scary and unpredictable, I think that's part of the creepiness factor of it."

While the psychology of what makes clowns scary takes a long journey into the human psyche, the reason for dressing up to scare the bejaysus out of people is easier to explain.

"That's young men being jerks, in a nutshell. Once they've discovered a way of drawing attention to themselves and impose their will on the world, it's going to spread quite easily," said Dr King.

Sunday Independent

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