The Psychology Behind The Extreme Creepiness Of Dolls And Clowns

Concept: Abandoned Person

In A Nutshell

There are some things that a huge percentage of the population can agree are creepy, like dolls and clowns. While there hasn’t been much research done on what makes something creepy as opposed to terrifying, some findings suggest that it has something to do with ambiguity. When we’re not sure what someone’s motives are, we find them creepy. Among some of the professions consistently believed to be creepy are (of course) clowns. Creepy hobbies are usually those that involve watching something—even birds—perhaps one of the reasons we find dolls just so relentlessly creepy.

The Whole Bushel

If something’s creepy, there’s no doubt as to what feelings that’s going to dredge up: the uneasiness, the chills, the certain feeling that something is terribly wrong. There are some things that a huge number of us seem to find are creepy with no real reason why, but it’s a feeling and a sentiment that’s so widespread, there’s got to be something more to it.

We’re talking, of course, about dolls and clowns.

They’re creepy. The Pollock’s Toy Museum in London has an entire room full of dolls, and there’s a reason it’s the last room on their tour. A surprising number of people won’t even go into the room and opt to backtrack through the rest of the museum. It’s nothing new, either. When Thomas Edison made his first talking dolls, they weren’t the major hit he thought they were going to be. It was quite the opposite—people thought they were creepy.

And then there are clowns. There’s a reason they make frequent appearances in horror movies. For a lot of people, seeing even harmless-looking clowns is utterly terrifying.

So why? What makes them creepy?

According to psychologists, there are a couple of different factors at work. Part of it is what Freud called the uncanny. Now, it’s more often called the uncanny valley, that weird place where something is familiar and easily recognizable . . . but just a little bit off. In the case of dolls, they’re meant to be human, but they’re clearly not. That bothers our brains.

It’s especially bothersome if something is wrong. Take a look at pictures of animals photoshopped to have human eyes, and that’s the effect we mean.

And clowns? It’s the mouth, especially the smiles. There’s something unnerving about an incessantly smiling person, especially when the emotions and intentions behind that smile might have little to do with happiness. It’s been suggested that this one has a little bit of history behind it, possibly dating back to the era of the jester. Jesters who failed to make their patron laugh could be scarred to put a permanent smile on their face.

A fear of human-like figures is called automatonophobia, and a fear of dolls specifically is pediophobia. But that might be improperly defined. According to curators at Pollock’s Toy Museum, people aren’t so much afraid of dolls as they are creeped out by them. That’s an entirely different emotion.

So what makes the difference between creepy and frightening?

Research suggests that, like the idea of the uncanny, creepy has something to do with the idea that something’s not quite right. Ambiguity is a huge part of creepiness; it’s the person who looks at us with a leering grin, the one with intentions we’re not quite sure of. The one with the knife? We know what their intentions are, and that’s where “creepy” becomes “terrifying.”

Creepy happens when we’re in an ambiguous situation, and our survival instincts kick in. As a species, we’ve learned to err on the side of caution. By the 21st century, it’s been pretty thoroughly programmed into us. When it comes down to it, safety often takes priority over social graces, even today.

One of the few studies actually done on creepiness found some intriguing things. Men are more likely to be seen as creepy than women, and there are certain professions (like clowns) that were also more likely to be high on the creep scale. And perhaps surprisingly, there were some hobbies that were often found to be described as creepy, usually hobbies that involved watching. Even bird-watching was described as creepy, suggesting that there’s something fundamentally creepy about the ambiguous motive behind silently watching.

Which, in turn, goes back to the dolls, and their silent, staring, watchful eyes, perhaps setting off the creepy-detector in many of us.

Show Me The Proof

BBC Culture: Why are dolls so creepy?
Psychology Today: How We Decide Who’s Creepy
Vulture: An Expert Explains Why You’re Scared of Creepy Clowns and Other Horror Tropes
Smithsonian: The History of Creepy Dolls