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Why are clowns so scary? © Getty Images

Why are clowns so scary?

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Masks and makeup can disrupt our ability to read facial expressions, an important part of human social interaction.

Asked by: Matt Adams, Lutterworth

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For many people, there is something disturbing about the clown’s make-up that renders their facial expression as an unnatural, fixed grin or smile. This means we can’t read their true emotions, putting us on edge.

It’s probably no coincidence that many of the most infamous horror characters also conceal their faces in some way – think of the Scream mask, or Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When the clown also behaves aggressively or menacingly, the contrast with their playful costume and grinning features just adds to the creepiness. But context is everything: children can find friendly, silly circus clowns hilarious.

Can dogs smell fear? © Getty Images

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Authors

Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.

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