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Clown terrorizes town: Why are clowns scary?

Clown terrorizes town in Britain. A clown has been spotted all over Northampton, U.K., spawning a Facebook page, and a town clown catcher to alleviate concerns. Why are clowns terrifying to some?

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The fact that the clown poses for photographers suggests an element of hoaxing or mischief; after all, if anyone thought the clown was a serious threat they could follow him or call the police. It's also important to note that England has, by some estimates, nearly 2 million surveillance cameras in operation. Public streets are routinely monitored and recorded, and it would be a simple matter for police to review footage to locate a doorway or vehicle where the clown emerged. That is, of course, assuming that they believed there is any threat; walking around dressed as a clown at night is not illegal.

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Creepy clowns

Fear of clowns — called coulrophobia — is fairly common, especially in young children. The reasons people find clowns scary vary from person to person; sometimes, the fear stems from a childhood trauma with a specific clown, other times, it's just a general unease with all clowns. [What Really Scares People: Top 10 Phobias]

But there are a few reasons why clowns are often considered creepy and disturbing. Clowns exaggerate for effect, distorting reality and proportion. They drive impossibly tiny cars and carry outsized gear, such as tricycles the size of elephants and hammers the size of logs. Nearly everything about a clown, including his or her speech, actions and clothes, are either too big or too small, and nothing about them is normal.

Clowns are at once both instantly recognizable and yet totally anonymous. We don't know who is behind that makeup and red rubber nose: a kindly grandfather or a serial killer? And, of course, clowns are also unnatural in another way: No normal person could willingly put up with hordes of children screaming and jumping all over them for that long.

While the Northampton Clown seems to be having harmless fun (for example, on  Sept. 17, promising on Facebook a big surprise for later this week), the real danger is probably the threat of copycats hijacking the phenomenon and getting in on the act; already there are a few reports of (apparently independent) clowns pretending to be the Northampton Clown.

Or are they? The mystery continues.

Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of "Skeptical Inquirer" science magazine and author of six books including "The Martians Have Landed! A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes." His website is

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