This is NOT going to be an article that relishes in the opportunity to put a demonic clown photo in between paragraphs. Below is a photo of an empty movie theater: a nostalgic and welcoming environment for the whole family. Continue to scroll freely. Mild spoilers for the movie “It” ahead.
My older brother, an emblematic Aquarius, introduced me to horror movies at a young age, albeit unintentionally. The first movie to keep me up at night was The Curse of the Black Pearl, from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. I see now that the most terrifying element of that movie was how it taught people to pronounce ‘Caribbean.’ But at the time, I pictured the molting remains of a pirate lurking under my bed at night. After recovering from that bone-chilling flick, I followed it up with Dawn of the Dead. Thereafter, I caught furtive glimpses of The Ring under the guise of retrieving a mid-night snack.
Here I faced a dilemma: I wanted to perform coolness and maturity by weathering the world’s terrors without flinching. However, these movies were undoubtedly fucking me up. At night, in the sleepy hours freed by my most recent scare, I brainstormed strategies for curbing my fears. From the library, I borrowed the Goosebumps series, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and other tales. I thought repeated exposure would acclimate me to the structure of the genre, so I could predict the patterns of things that go bump in the night.
Over a decade later, and I’m still working on that strategy. My brother and I convene for the occasional horror flick that falls within the range of things scary enough for him and not too scary for me.
“It” made the cut.
For those who seek a thought-provoking thrill, you’ll find it in the most recent Stephen King adaptation. But if your formative years were, like mine, devoid of traumatic clown encounters, you’ll find the antagonist to be one of the movie’s less terrifying constituents. Instead, it may be the zombie-like remains of his victims that unsettle you, staggering toward the screen in clothes that, for a movie set in the eighties, suspiciously resemble those of a pirate. But more likely, you’ll be the most unnerved by the terrors that fit more seamlessly into our lives. Beyond the sewers where demonic beings burrow, each of the film’s seven heroes “Losers” is haunted by a very real threat that, when weathered alone, quietly consumes them. Juxtaposed with Pennywise, these tangibly terrifying storylines led me to ask,
Why are we afraid of clowns?
A quick Google search yielded a suitable answer. (By the way, if you know of a plug-in that blocks images from articles, please let me know). According to Harvard psychiatrist Steven Schlozman, we are accustomed to faces and expressions looking a certain way. And when they don’t, it’s unnerving. That accounts for the common fear of dolls, masks, zombies, and talking animals—which is totally a thing, right?
Put simply, clowns are not normal. Posted outside of the theater was a sign that read, “KEEP THE SCARES ON THE SCREEN.” The memo asked that moviegoers refrain from donning clown costumes to see the feature. I’ll admit it (the paper) gave me a laugh, and a shudder. The fear of clowns is so normal that it’s accommodated. Clowns have achieved the impossible: writing a truth that the whole world can agree upon.
But what about the conventional nightmares that we don’t mention? Sensible fears hold us in place every day. Not with the jolting terror of clowns, bugs, snakes, spiders, death, and other picked poisons. Subtly, masterfully, these smaller fears trickle into our minds without feeling out of place. Atychiphobia names the fear of failure. Kakorrahaphobia: the fear of rejection. Autophobia: the fear of loneliness, known to the new millennium as FoMO. These phobias course through entire generations like an epidemic, hyperactive but rarely acknowledged. Where’s the sign barring citizens from dressing up as grammatical errors in cover letters?
Unlike the feel-good ending of the movie (seriously), these mundane fears often win. They rack up body counts in the form of unexpressed wants and muted dreams. We feed them every time we don’t trust our instincts, or take risks. Every time we keep ourselves silenced. Every time we stick to what we know, and look for reasons to stay comfortable.
If none of these sound familiar, consider this: even procrastination is a manifestation of fear. You’re chasing away the daunting tasks on your to-do list with smaller and safer bets. Reorganizing your closet or bookshelf may seem productive and sensible, and on a surface level it is. But sometimes the best thing you can do is be insensible. Walk away from the familiar in pursuit of something terrifying. Let your fears propel you into action: write that letter, send that message, cancel those plans. The worst case scenario that unreels in your head has not yet come to pass. If you stay glued to your seat watching it, it will surely become real. But if you move forward, in spite of your fear, you’ll find that you always have the time and power to overwrite it.
For the remainder of Sunday afternoon, I was haunted by clown faces. I saw them in carpet patterns and on fast food decor. (Why I decided to see “It” and go to McDonald’s in the same day is unclear). When night fell, I swore I could see glowing eyes on a misshapen head, lurking in the corner of my bedroom. But Monday was just around the corner and I had shit to do. So I closed my eyes and fell asleep anyway. At long last, I had found my strategy against horror movies, as well as censored anxieties and uncharted tomorrows. “It” gave me a deeper understanding of three meaningful little words: it’s not real.