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Fear of Clowns: No Laughing Matter

Beth Wallace was stopped at a traffic light when a truck pulled up next to her. As she took a sip from her thermos of coffee, Wallace, 32, a San Francisco resident, glanced at the driver, who turned his head and returned the stare.

It was then that she saw the ghostly white face and bulbous red nose.

Wallace shrieked and scrambled to lock her car doors, barely noticing the hot coffee she spilled on herself. The driver was a clown.

Wallace, a teacher, has been petrified of clowns since childhood. “I know it's irrational, but they scare the bejeezus out of me,” she said.

Although there are no official statistics, some experts believe that as many as one in seven people experience some level of coulrophobia, as fear of clowns is clinically known. Symptoms can include shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, sweating, nausea and overall feelings of dread.

In October, a plan to erect dozens of clown statues in Sarasota, Fla., a fabled circus town, was almost scrapped after an outcry from coulrophobes and clown-haters.

Coulrophobia is most commonly triggered by a traumatic experience in childhood, said Steven Luel, a psychologist in New York specializing in anxiety and phobias.

Indeed, that was the case with Wallace. At the age of 6, she met her first clown at the circus, an encounter she still remembers clearly 25 years later.

“A clown got right up in my face, and I could see his beard stubble under his makeup. He smelled bad and his eyes were weird,” she said. “I guess I never got over it.”

Clowns have been around for thousands of years, serving a unique role in many societies. In Egypt and China as far back as 1800 B.C., court jesters were permitted to mock and criticize kings when no one else could.

But it is precisely this ability to act outside normal social boundaries that makes some people uncomfortable around clowns, experts say. “Clowns can pull off your wig or squirt you in the face with water and generally make fun of you without suffering any consequences,” said Derek Lee, a coulrophobe living in New York.

On ihateclowns.com, one of the many Web sites dedicated to the phobia, an anonymous writer admitted that his fear of clowns stemmed from once being ridiculed by one.

“I was at a circus when a clown came up to me and said, ‘Would you like to see the monkey I have in my box?' Well, of course I did, so I said yes. When I looked into the box, there was no monkey ... only a mirror.”

It doesn't help, clowns point out, that authors and screenwriters have often portrayed them as agents of evil. In Stephen King's 1986 novel “It,” an evil clown called Pennywise harasses and kills young children. In the 1982 movie “Poltergeist,” a clown doll comes to life and tries to strangle a young boy. And, of course, there's the Joker, Batman's clownlike nemesis, who appeared in the first issue of the Batman comic book in 1940.

"The media has given us such a bad reputation, it makes it really hard to win people over," says Susan Zwirn, a New York-based clown.

In one case, though, truth was more shocking than fiction. John Wayne Gacy, who was convicted in 1978 of sexually abusing and murdering 33 young men and boys in the Chicago area, would often perform as “Pogo” or “Patches” at children's parties and hospitals. His favorite subject when he took up oil painting while on death row was also clowns.

Whatever the root causes, the reality of coulrophobia became painfully clear to clowns last month when a wave of anti-clown sentiment swept through Sarasota. When coulrophobes there got wind that city officials were about to approve a plan to put 70 life-size fiberglass clown statues throughout the downtown area, they inundated city agencies with phone calls, e-mails messages and in-person visits protesting the plan.

Ken Shelin, a Sarasota city commissioner, received dozens of such complaints. “I was shocked,” he said. “I had no idea people felt so strongly against clowns.”

The outcry was an especially large pie in the clown community's face because Sarasota is one place where clowns should be loved and respected. The town is one of America's premier big-top hubs and served as the winter home to the Ringling Brothers Circus for over 30 years. Fifteen major circus companies are based there. It is said to be home to more circus people, both working and retired, than any one place in the world.

Some Sarasotans protested the statues as being “kitschy,” but others confessed to deeper-rooted objections.

“Clowns give me the creeps,” wrote resident Lowell Gilbertson in a letter to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

“How would you like to be driving around downtown and see your worst fear everywhere and super-sized?” Karen Thompson wrote to the city commission.

Although the plan will still likely go ahead, city officials are thinking about reducing the number of statues to 35 and removing them after six months instead of a year. The proposed changes were prompted because of concerns over vandalism and protests. One person, for instance, threatened in an anonymous e-mail message to knock the clown statues down with his car.

The response among those who make their living as clowns has been one of dismay. "It hurts to hear I put the fear of God into people," said Mike Jeynes, a full-time clown who has worked in Sarasota for more than 20 years. “I got into this gig to make them laugh, not to make them upset.”

-- Alex Waterfield - Columbia News Service

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