Why Are We Afraid Of Clowns? - And Other Facts About Phobias

Clowns can make a strong impression on a child because of their exaggerated, unnatural facial features and intrusive behavior that cannot be avoided.

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A phobia is irrational, forward-looking anxiety or fear of an object or phenomenon. While sustained phobias can sometimes arise from traumatic experiences and the association with the present object, phobias are different from the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

A person with a phobia experiences an intense, overwhelming, paralyzing fear that they can not overcome by the willpower or rationality without a purposeful effort. Phobias are common, and a person with an irrational fear can be entirely reasonable, intelligent, and capable in every other aspect outside of the specific phobia. Because the human psyche is incredibly complex, it is not always possible to find an explanation for the phobia.

Conditions That Have Mistakenly Been Named “Phobias”

Agoraphobia and social phobias are two major phobias that are separated due to the recognition of the complexity of these reactions. There is also the understanding that they had mistakingly been named “phobias” due to the limited insight we have had about them in the past. Both types have an immense and overarching impact on one’s life, cannot be narrowed down to a specific repeatable trigger, and vary significantly between individuals. 

Someone “on the internet” once mistakingly explained agoraphobia as “fear of open spaces,” and that erroneous explanation keeps circling the social networks. Agoraphobia is, in fact, an overwhelming panic reaction triggered by helplessness or inability to avoid the situation. Many people with agoraphobia would be triggered if tied up, held down, disconnected, or locked up - regardless of the location. The routes of agoraphobia are nearly always related to a traumatic experience. 


Social phobias refer to a broad category of individual anxieties related to situations of social exposure, have also been separated - similarly because the name “phobia” was never supposed to be applied here.

What Are Specific Phobias?

Specific phobias are true phobias where a particular triggering object or situation can be named. They fall into several categories:

  • fears related to animals (spiders, dogs, etc.)
  • fears related to the immediate environment (heights, closed spaces, darkness, etc.)
  • fears related to health hazards or phenomena (injections, infections, blood, falls, etc.)
  • fears related to specific situations (riding an elevator, driving, etc.)
  • other (choking, loud noises, water, heavy machinery, etc.)

There is no official list of phobias, as the list is nearly infinite, so specialists make up their names as needed using Latin + phobia. For example, a fear of water is named by the joining of hydro (water) and phobia (fear). 

Why Are Some Phobias More Common Than Others?

Some phobias became common mainly because some situations are more likely to trigger the initial traumatic experience or provoke a fear response on a subconscious level than others. For example, blood is nearly always associated with someone traumatized, a dangerous situation, or pain. Clowns can make a strong impression on a child because of their exaggerated, unnatural facial features and intrusive behavior that cannot be avoided. Fear of dogs is often seeded into the easily impressable child by parents telling them cautionary tales, being scared themselves, pulling them away from an animal, etc.

Some phobias appear to be an exaggerated reaction, only looking irrational because it is indiscriminate and unproportionate: fear of heights or spiders or snakes are evolutionarily justified but reach the level of phobia when the reactions become counterproductive. Sometimes, people suffering from this type describe it as “an ancient, animal impulse that overpowers my human willpower.”

Many phobias are accompanied with panic attacks.
Many phobias are accompanied by panic attacks.

Statistically, most common phobias are:

  • acrophobia (fear of heights),
  • aerophobia (fear of flying),
  • arachnophobia (fear of spiders),
  • claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces),
  • astraphobia (fear of thunder and lightning),
  • hemophobia (fear of blood),
  • zoophobia (fear of animals),
  • hypochondria (although it has been recognized as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder),
  • xenophobia (fear of strangers or foreigners),
  • germophobia (fear of infection or disease that can be contracted).

How Are Phobias Treated?

It is possible to treat a phobia, although modern professionals came to recognize that phobias are nearly always a symptom and not a standalone illness. In very rare cases, when the initial cause or an underlying condition cannot be determined (or they are rational in nature, such as parents passing the fear of dogs down to their kids), treating the symptom alone can be sufficient. In a lot of cases, it is not, and the symptomatic treatment is merely a “patch.” In the latter cases, psychiatrists only use it because they either do not know better, or the patient can not afford long enough treatment.

The symptomatic treatment for specific phobias is exposure treatment, where the patient is gradually exposed to the triggering object with the positive reinforcement through achieving the success each time. It is important to know that it is only sufficient for a small number of simple phobias and cannot replace uncovering the cause and working with it in more complex ones. The exposure therapy can also go wrong if the situation is not sufficiently controlled: each negative exposure would delay the progress or make the phobia worse which is called flooding.

In those cases where the phobia is complex and working on uncovering its cause may take time, medications can be used temporarily to control anxiety or reduce the severity of panic attacks. 

About the Author

Antonia is a sociologist and an anglicist by education, but a writer and a behavior enthusiast by inclination. If she's not writing, editing or reading, you can usually find her snuggling with her huge dog or being obsessed with a new true-crime podcast. She also has a (questionably) healthy appreciation for avocados and Seinfeld.


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