I’m afraid of all the usual things. Debt. Dementia. Donald Trump. But these days, my inner security alert monitor has cranked from orange through red and right on up to VIPER (Viper, or paint code L3781, being the reddest red of all). Why? Because the clowns are coming.
In fact, they’re already here. Everywhere. Reports of creepy clown sightings are coming in from across North America—from Wasco, California (where a pasty-faced prankster with an eye that trailed streaks of eye gunk first terrified the locals) to Greenville, South Carolina (where sinister bozos are said to be luring little children into the woods). A photo recently posted on Instagram of a clown standing beside a Canadian high school was captioned: “We ain’t killing we just creeping.” Aaggh.
For those of us who get a bump in blood pressure on seeing a balloon animal—there could be a clown nearby!—these are terrifying times. I’m clown-phobic. A psychologist would label my condition “coulrophobia”—the extreme or irrational fear of clowns. To which I would respond: What’s irrational about distrusting a leering smile on a painted-on face? When you can’t get a read on who’s behind the mask, much less their motives, it’s entirely rational to listen to the hairs standing up on the back of your neck. Every one of them is screaming “RUN!”
I know when it started. Little me—not yet three. On a shelf in my bedroom sat a “see-no-evil” knitted monkey. Beside him slouched a stuffed clown doll with a hard white plastic face. His glassy eyes would study me joylessly. Clownie was later joined by a sinister sidekick, Jack—a spring-loaded jack-in-the-box. I don’t know what became of that trio, but their menacing spirits haunt the Coulrophobic corner of my midlife brain.
No, I have not sought professional help. I suspect a psychologist would just smile condescendingly, and ask: “Has this fear actually limited your life in some way?” Coulrophobia is the Rodney Dangerfield of phobias. It doesn’t get the respect of big-name phobias like agoraphobia (fear of crowded spaces) or acrophobia (fear of heights). When I mention how I avoided McDonald’s for years, people snigger. “Ronald doesn’t even wear his yellow jumpsuit anymore,” my friends insist. “He wears cargo pants and a vest!” As if a wardrobe update would make me want to plant smooches on that freaky white face. If I say I’ve had to boycott movies featuring killer-kooks like Pennywise, Chucky and the Joker, scoffers shrug. So you’ve skipped a few films? Passed on seeing the Shrine circus? Big deal.
Okay, I grant you those things were easy to avoid. But now the continent’s gone mad. Creepy clowns are springing up like crazed jacks-in-boxes. And not just on Halloween anymore. How’s a coulrophobe to cope?
A friend suggested I try exposure therapy. She maintains you can overcome a phobia by repeatedly exposing yourself to what you fear in small, incremental doses. I’m on it. So far, I’ve watched a YouTube video on how to make balloon animals. I’ve wandered the aisles at ToysRUs—and actually picked up a clown doll. Yesterday I downed an Angus burger at McDonald’s. I’m making progress. My friend agrees. She tells me that even Stephen King says it’s time to cool down the clown hysteria. She claims he said on Twitter that most clowns are good.
Most, Stephen? Most? Now the hairs on the back of my neck start to tingle. I sense, from somewhere, a coal-smudged eye is trained on me. An eye that trails streaks of its own vitreous gel! When the coroner comes to collect me, I know the monkey will swear he never saw a thing.