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  • This is what it's *really* like to be terrified of clowns

    'Coulrophobia' is more than just 'a dislike of clowns' – it's an unrelenting terror. As the second film adaption of Stephen King's IT breaks records, we speak to the people who suffer with the paralysing phobia


    08 Sep 2017
    Rex Features

    “It had white, almost translucent skin, with a bulging red nose and a maniacal smile spreading between its thickly-painted red lips. That was 12 years ago, and I can still remember every tiny detail of its face.”

    Annie was 5-years-old when she first came face-to-face with a clown, at a friend’s birthday party in her garden in Kent. As it ‘leered’ down to say ‘hello’, she let out a piercing scream and ran as fast as she could towards the open side gate. “I don’t remember much after that, except constantly looking over my shoulder to check that the ‘monster’ wasn’t following,” she says. “But my mum tells me it’s lucky she caught up with me – another few seconds and I would’ve made it to the road.”

    Now 27, Annie still can’t even look at pictures of clowns without being consumed by terror. “My heart starts pounding, and I often feel sick or dizzy.” She suffers with what’s been termed ‘coulrophobia’ – a persistent fear of clowns that has yet to be recognsied by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

    And she’s not alone. Ryan, a 39-year-old from Belfast, has suffered from coulrophobia for as long as he can remember. “I was probably only two-years-old when I first saw a clown and it’s one of my earliest memories – that’s how profound it was,” he says. “We were at the circus when suddenly, this creature approached my mum to try and get her into the ring to participate in the show. I was absolutely terrified. I clung on to her, not wanting that thing anywhere near my mum, and screamed the place down.”

    This abject fear has stayed with Ryan ever since. Growing up, he was terrified of attending friends' parties in case clowns had been booked as entertainment, and in his 20s, he couldn’t take his nieces and godsons to the circus, despite how much they begged. “I felt so bad,” he says, “but even if a clown appears on TV, I have to turn away, shut my eyes, and change the channel. I can’t even look at advertisements on the tube without being flooded with fear.”

    Rex Features

    In fact, so many of us are petrified of clowns that the release of IT, as well as last year’s creepy clown craze, is harming the professional clown business. “It all started with the original IT [the novel by Stephen King],” says Pam Moody, World Clown Association (WCA) president, told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s a science-fiction character. It’s not a clown and has nothing to do with pro-clowning. People had school shows and library shows cancelled."

    Pam also told of how one pro-clown, who had arrived early for a children’s birthday party and was waiting in her parked car, was reported to the local police. “She looks up and there are four police officers surrounding her,” she said. “Someone in the neighbourhood called in a clown sighting.”

    But while Pennywise – IT's evil clown played by Bill Skarsgård in this year's adaption – may be a fictional entity from a sci-fi novel, that doesn't make coulrophobia, just like any other phobia, any less frightening or debilitating. And that goes for adults and children alike. "I'm 39 and my phobia of clowns still totally affects me," says Ryan. "The other day, my mum started to tell me the circus story, and when I stopped her and recounted it in greater detail than she could even remember, she was shocked. My mum had no idea it had scarred me that much."

    For more information on phobias, including treatment options, visit NHS.uk.