As a child, I didn’t find clowns to be frightening per se–just mildly annoying. But at that time, they were not very popular as entertainment for children (the heyday for that was the 1960s, the era of Bozo the Clown). I remember seeing a “clown performance” only once, at the state fair. And I think that’s the first time I ever shrugged and said “Meh.”
However, I became terrified of balloons around the age of 6. Either my brother or I had brought one home from a birthday party. It had been in the house a couple of days, and the helium had started to wear off. That night I got up to pee around 3AM, and, to my horror, lurking in the dark hallway was the balloon, hovering at eye level, drifting eerily toward me in the mild breeze of the air conditioning… Now that still gives me chills.
By the time I hit middle school, a kind of “conditioned fear” of clowns was going around–a result of Stephen King’s It and lurid details about clown-turned-serial-killer John Wayne Gacy. Then the masks started appearing in stores–an array of hideously contorted clown faces, with pointed teeth and wild eyes. And of course, Batman villain the Joker (in all his incarnations) only reinforced the clown’s notoriety as an evil entity.
By the time I was old enough to go to haunted houses, it seemed like every single one featured an army of sadistic clowns and a “funhouse room.” Well, nothing strengthens psychological conditioning like grown men in polka dots and face paint chasing you with a chainsaw. So now, as an adult, I am officially scared of clowns.
And you know what? I’m kinda OK with that. I think the scary clown archetype is fascinating; I admire how it combines disparate elements: cheerfulness and terror, playfulness and the sinister. And it’s even more interesting that, over the last few decades, the clown’s dark side has emerged as the more powerful one.
Read all about the history of clowns in the Smithsonian’s article on the topic.