Long before they donned big feet and balloon pants for children's birthday parties, clowns were strictly adult entertainment. As dimwitted drunks, hypersexual hooligans and mischievous miscreants, these court jesters and fools poked fun at Chinese emperors, Roman senators and medieval feudal lords.
Yep, clowns were cultural pranksters long before they morphed into merry fools. They also bore less-than-sterling names such as "stupidus," "scurra" and "moriones" (from which "stupid," "scurrilous" and "moron" are derived).
So why should we be surprised that clowns are back to being creepy? Psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists aren't.
For the past few months, sinister clown sightings have swept through a dozen states, and law enforcement, school administrators, children and adults have had to tamp down irrational fears.
No shock, then, that a study released earlier this year involving an international sample of more than 1,300 people put "clown" at the top of a list of creepiest occupations, ahead of taxidermist, sex shop owner and funeral director. (Oddly, "writer" came in 11th, just ahead of actor, construction worker and computer software engineer.)
The lead author of the study, psychologist Francis T. McAndrew, wrote, "On the nature of creepiness," that it was "things that make a person unpredictable also predict creepiness." And clowns, frankly, fit the bill. They wear disguises, might appear to be friendly or happy from their face paint and yet behave differently, and you don't know what they might do next.
"It may be that it is only when we are confronted with uncertainty about threat that we get 'creeped out,' " Andrew wrote, "which could be adaptive if it facilitates our ability to maintain vigilance during periods of uncertainty. Thus, it is our contention that 'creepy' is a qualitatively different characteristic than related concepts such as 'terrifying' or 'disgusting' in which the conclusions drawn about the person in question are much more clear cut."
Then again, the uncanny clown sightings might be more figment of the imagination than genuine fright. According to Loren Coleman, a cryptozoologist (someone who studies mythical beasts, such as the Loch Ness Monster), the sightings might be due to a kind of mass hysteria that is most often sparked by children.
The phenomenon of this mass hysteria carries a "scientific" name, which itself could allay fears for the easily frightened:
The Phantom Clown Theory.