How clowns evolved from tricksters to tormentors

Justin Thomas assesses why the creepy clown phenomenon has spread across the globe.

Psychologists strive to understand the true meaning behind inexplicable happenings. In other words, we love a good craze. And what craze could be crazier than creepy clowns terrorising a nation?

Around August, global reports began to pour in about creepy clowns misbehaving and acting in threatening ways towards members of the public. This was just the intensification of a craze that began in 2014, when similar reports made global news – in England, France and the United States. Why now? Why clowns?

One suggestion is that this is a case of social contagion, or mass hysteria fuelled by sensational over reporting. Fear makes us vigilant, hyper vigilant even, placing us on high alert for scary clowns. So now, no clown goes unnoticed or unreported. Last week, the fast food giant ­McDonald’s announced that it will cut back on the use of its iconic clown mascot, Ronald McDonald, due to public sensitivity.

Beyond social psychological explanations, we could also look at the more symbolic interpretations of the psychoanalytic tradition. The renowned Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, saw the clown as a manifestation of the ancient trickster archetype. The positive attributes of the trickster include being wise, funny and intelligent. However, the more negative aspects include being a malicious rule breaker, a cunning thief and a cruel prankster. A psychiatrist might consider such a person a psychopath, diagnosing antisocial personality disorder.

The trickster archetype can be found throughout mythology and folklore. Consider for example the Norse troublemaker, Loki, who cuts off Siff’s beautiful hair while she sleeps; or the gentler trickster figures of regional folklore, such as Juha, Hoja and Nassrudin, who regularly outsmart, dupe and educate their adversaries by playing the fool.

Within Jung’s school – analytical psychology – the trickster is often associated with an infantile mentality and a lack of any purpose beyond self-gratification. Some Jungians suggest that the rites of passage observed in pre-industrial societies are symbolic of a young man’s progression from “trickster” to “hero”. Perhaps in our modern societies with their less obvious or less meaningful rites of passage, the cruel, cynical and unfeeling aspect of the trickster – the evil clown – is making an increasingly regular appearance.

One commentator even recently pointed out the trickster-like attributes of a current American presidential hopeful, Donald Trump. Will an evil clown one day rule the world?

Psychoanalytic interpretations aside, masks make us anonymous and anonymity can often bring out the meanness in us. Seminal psychology research from the 1970s showed that when people were made anonymous (wearing hooded masks) they administered what they believed to be more severe electric shocks to other human participants in a laboratory setting.

More recent psychological research further supports the idea that anonymity, even illusory anonymity, can have a negative effect. A study published in the journal Psychological Science found that when participants were assigned to wear large, face-concealing, dark sunglasses, as opposed to clear glass spectacles, there was a decrease in charitable giving (pro-social behaviour). In another experiment, within the same study, participants were assigned to a room with bright light or dim light and then given the opportunity to cheat on a task. Those in the darkened room arguably felt more anonymous and were also more likely to cheat. If sunglasses and dim lights can do that, then how much more so a full-face mask?

In the early 1800s when English entertainer Joseph Grimaldi devised the smiling, red-cheeked, white-faced clown make up, could he ever have imagined that one day it would become synonymous with terror rather than humour? Today, we love witches – think Hogwarts – and fear clowns. Psychologists have a lot of explaining to do.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National