Thursday, June 25, 2009

Coulrophobia and The Fusiform Gyrus

Twenty minutes to showtime.
I give myself ten minutes.
If it’s an eight o’clock show that means I am out in the audience at 7:40 doing clown work as the “House Manager”.
Shaking hands, getting giggles, generally letting my Id run amok.
I’m testing the waters, tiptoeing on the edge of inappropriateness.
Dipping my big toe into the pool of 2600 people. And wiggling it.

I always try to thank the people in wheel chairs for coming and tell the caregivers sitting next to them how beautiful they look.

The dynamic is delicious. They’re here to have a good time and I’m wearing a ton of (painstakingly applied) make up, a kind of striped clown zoot suit and a wig that looks like two hummingbirds have fought in it for nesting rights.

There can be no doubt by my appearance. I am a clown.

And like Lear’s “all licensed fool”, there is very little that is out of bounds for me.

(Though I did have one kid ask “Are you in the show?” I wanted to say “No kid, I just wear this fright wig and gobs of makeup to help people find their seats.”)

Two masterpieces, one by Picasso.


About ninety five percent of the kids out there connect with us clowns much more readily than they may with the amazing acrobats in this show because, well, we are like them: childish.

But there are certain kids, about 5%, who clearly have some very deep form of Coulrophobia. (fear of clowns) running through their viens. One look at my smiling face and they go hysterical.
But not in a good way.


And it’s not like they had some traumatic experience with clowns in their young lives, some Stephen King engram branded on their psyche that sends them on a one way ticket to conniption city. Coulrophobia can be an innate, hard wired predisposition and it is quite a thing to behold, let alone cause.

The parents look at me with a look that says “Well that beats us, we just paid a hundred and twenty five dollars so you could traumatize our kid for life. We’ll probably be paying for his therapy for the next ten years. Thanks.”

But the fact remains: a majority of the kids love the clowns in Kooza, but some kids, after one waggle of my insanely arcing eyebrows, are sent into paroxysms of unadulterated terror. Ever cause a spontaneous tantrum in a 5 year old?

I have.

The Mask of Grease and Powder

There have been studies. A hospital in London had to repaint the children’s ward because the circus theme and bright clowny colors were freaking the kids out faster than you can pop a balloon animal with a fistful of thumbtacks.

Apparently there’s something deep seated here and us clowns are depicted as evil in this day and age more often than not.
Heath Ledger’s Joker, the band Insane Clown Posse, the clown spectre from Poltergeist notwithstanding, I wonder when clowns went from empathetic sometimes elegant innocents like Jean Louis Berrault in Les Enfants du Paradis to Tim Curry's malevolent creature in It.

That layer of make up, that fraction of an inch of grease and powder can be enough to curdle the disposition of an impressionable child faster than you can say John Wayne Gacy.

A U-turn on the Mind's Superhighway

Maybe it’s related to the fusiform gyrus.

The fusiform gyrus is the superhighway of the brain along which images from the eye are transmitted by the optic nerve to the visual cortex where the images are processed for perception. It is also described as playing a crucial role in face and body recognition.

The “mask” I wear as both the “House Manager” and the “King of the Clowns” clouds the perception, jangles the fusiform gyrus, plants the seed of fear in some kids. (and adults apparently)

People innately appreciate honesty I guess and when they are confronted with the lie of a false eyebrow or an enhanced leer there is a crack in the fusiform gyrus superhighway. And Coulrotrphobia fills the gap.


The word Clown and the adjective Childish have gotten a bad rap. But indeed the role of the clown in society is a sacred office, a naive soothsayer in a complicated world.
Maybe fostering a little of the quality of childishness in our lives would go a long way towards creating a world where honesty is prized over deception. Invention over cynicism and “why not” wins out over “why”.

I remember when I was playing Buckminster Fuller in a one man show and asked a child I sat next to during a performance why humanity was having such a hard time seeing themselves as crew members on “Spaceship Earth”.
The six year old calmly replied “Because the world is run by adults.”
Everyone laughed.

Long live the Clowns.

No comments: