Are you creeped out by clowns? There’s a word for that, Coulrophobia: “Extreme or irrational fear of clowns.”

Here’s how it happened to Jordan Gaines:

A couple of weekends ago, I came down with coulrophobia. Unfortunately, I have yet to shake the disease.

Because we are Halloween masochists, my friends and I drove out to the Lancaster [PA] area for Field of Screams, which can be best described as a horror-movie-set-haunted-house on steroids. Sprinting from room to room offers a completely new, dizzying experience, with different themes and scary people to touch you or chase you down with chainsaws.

But this one room. This one room was unlike any other…

It zigzagged. The walls were tiled with 2×2″ black and white checkers. There was a strobe light. I was holding my friend’s hand and trying to keep my eyes shut through the flickering.

Out of nowhere, sitting in the corner, tiny and dejected, was this freaking clown. It looked so far away. Then suddenly, not one second later, it was IN MY FACE. The strobe light betrayed my perception of its speed and distance. I cried out. Please, just take me now, and do it quickly…

Gaines was a doctoral candidate in neuroscience when it happened so she goes deeper:

Psychologists believe that this kind of fear may have less to do with clowns and more with the unsettling familiarity. A normal-sized body with a painted face, big shoes, colorful clothes—but what’s under there?

“People are typically frightened by things which are wrong in some way, wrong in a disturbingly unfamiliar way,” says Paul Salkovskis of the Maudsley Hospital Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma in London.

Anthropologists may approach the phobia from the clown’s perspective. In 1961, Claude Levi Strauss wrote about the “freedoms” that masking oneself allows. A mask gives a clown the chance to adopt a new identity: “the facial disguise,” he writes, “temporarily eliminate[s] from social intercourse that part of the body which…the individual’s personal feelings and attitudes are revealed or can be deliberately communicated to others.”

In other words, the clown—with its painted-on expression of happiness and humor—limits the range of feelings we’re supposed to feel. The clown insists that we laugh. We may not want to laugh. The situation becomes, at best, awkward, and at worst—combined with the unsettling colorful familiarity—terrifying.

It doesn’t help that scary writers write scary stories about scary clowns, take Stephen King’s “It” (please!) which was made into a scary tv movie.

Apparently clowns know nobody likes them and it hurts their feelings. Leigh Cowart’s long read from the 2014 World Clown Association Annual Convention tells their side of it, but her friends didn’t want her to go there.

Our complicated relationship with clowns spans everything from the circus to the sex dungeon, from Saturday morning Bozo to Tim Curry peering up from the storm drain, from Patch Adams to Insane Clown Posse, not to mention the ubiquity of that flame-haired, greasepaint visage, the placidly smiling face of what is surely the 20th-century Ozymandias: Ronald McDonald. Every person I told about my plan to attend the clown convention voiced concern for my well-being…

Read on, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Clowns.

I’ll close this on a cheerier yet coulral note:

Photo by Donnie Nunley under Creative Commons license