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What Is Coulrophobia?

What to Know About the Crippling Phobia That's Plaguing American Horror Story: Cult

This season, American Horror Story is ramping up to new levels of terror to scare its loyal audience. With the premiere of AHS: Cult, we're introduced to the dark, postelection world. While much of it seems to be rooted in the troubling realities surrounding the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, it wouldn't be American Horror Story without a few added elements. In this case, we're talking about clowns. We're also talking about tiny holes and home invasion, but let's stick to the clowns for the time being. With the return of Twisty from Freak Show and all the other clown-laden teasers for season seven, it's clear that the show is playing off one of the world's oldest fears.

It's not just that clowns are set to appear in Cult. Sarah Paulson's character, Ally, actually suffers from what is known as coulrophobia; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it's an "extreme or irrational fear of clowns." Ally's debilitating mental reaction to clowns is clear very early on in the first episode. While it's true that AHS's clowns are more of a metaphor for American paranoia and anarchy, the inclusion of the impish circus creatures stretches back for centuries. Yep, clowns have been feared for pretty much as long as they've existed.

According to the Smithsonian, clowns appear in some cultures stretching back as far as 2500 BCE. While their initial purpose was to inspire laughter and joy, they "have always had a dark side." David Kiser, who at the time was director of talent for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, noted that clowns are meant to "reflect a fun-house mirror back at society," meaning some of our most hedonistic and manic tendencies were amplified and laid bare before us . . . in a comedic way. Even so, this aspect of "clownery," if you will, represents an "impish spirit." So, even though clowns come from a origin of entertainment, there's always been a blurry line between laughter and terror.

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It's not just the dark origins that make clowns scary, though. There's actually psychological evidence behind the terror. According to psychologist Rami Nader, we feel like we can't trust them. "They have these large, artificial, painted-on expressions, which you know don't actually represent how that clown is feeling because nobody can be happy all the time. And yet, the clown has a big happy smiling face . . . in essence, you sort of know that it's lying to you." According to psychologist Frank McAndrew, it's also the mischievous history of clown behavior that puts us on edge. Their tendencies to pull pranks and throw pies and turn unsuspecting individuals into victims creates a general mistrust and unease.

Then, of course, there are the terrifying iterations of clowns that have appeared in horror movies and scary stories over the years. Consider, for instance Stephen King's It: having a monster like Pennywise certainly isn't doing the clowns of the world any favors. So just know, while you're gripping your couch and trying to white-knuckle your way through all the clowns in American Horror Story: Cult, there's a logical reason you (and Ally) are so scared.

Image Source: FX
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