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Here's why people are afraid of clowns -- and what you can do to get over it

Lots of people are creeped out at the site of clown, whether it’s at the circus or creeping around in the woods at night. Movies like Stephen King’s “It” and the new season of “American Horror Story” featuring some terrifying clowns that take prey on the fears of the viewer. We spoke with Dr. Dena Rabinowitz, a psychologist in New York who specialises in the treatment of anxiety disorders and phobias, to find out why we are so scared of something that’s meant to make us laugh. Following is a transcript of the video.

Hi my name is Dr. Dena Rabinowitz, and I’m a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders.

I think most people find clowns delightful, but there’s definitely a group of people who find them creepy. There two things about clowns that kind of inherently lead people to be frightened of them. The first is that we rely a lot on facial expressions to understand people and see their motivations. And with clowns you don’t have facial expressions. It’s all under makeup, and it’s fixed. And so there’s a kind of a question of, “what’s going on under there?”

The second thing is people don’t inherently trust people who are always happy and laughing. For a lot of people, the fear of clowns actually is part of a more general fear of masked creatures. In regular parlance it’s called: coulrophobia.

We don’t like things that are familiar but then a little bit off. And so clowns look like people, but there’s an oddity to it. There’s something that is a little bit strange and from the norm. If we see clowns in places like in a circus where they belong, that’s often not as scary. But if we see a clown which is already slightly odd and different to us in a place where we don’t typically think they should be like the woods, it’s even scarier.

People aren’t born with a clown phobia, but they can certainly be genetically predispositioned to have an anxiety disorder. But a specific fear of clowns either comes because you had a traumatic event in childhood around clowns, a family member or somebody close to you kind of has taught you that clowns are scary, or you had an anxiety attack when you were around clowns and paired them together.

If you already have a clown phobia, watching movies like “It” or “American Horror Story” is not going to help, because all it does is reinforce the fact that clowns are in fact dangerous and scary. What we want to do to help with a phobia is show you that they’re just people with makeup underneath and that there’s nothing inherently scary.

Well if you just don’t like clowns, then you really don’t need to do anything about it. but there’s a small subset of people who really are terrified of clowns in that goes into the category of a phobia lots of people have phobias and just because you have a phobia doesn’t mean you need treatment. When you need to seek treatment for a phobia is when it interferes with your daily life. If you go screaming from a theatre because there might be a clown that shows up or you can’t go into town because there’s a circus, then you really need to seek treatment.

The best thing to do about a phobia is first of all recognise that the thing you’re afraid of is not dangerous and then do something called “exposure.” Which is putting yourself in proximity to the feared object until you get comfortable.

So one of the things I recommend of clowns is watch somebody put on the clown makeup, so you can see that they’re just a human being and see the progression of them turning into a clown. It makes it a lot more approachable, and you can learn to overcome your fear.

I don’t have a fear of clowns. I have a fear of snakes. So i understand this.

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