Why Some People Fear Seeing Other People in Masks

While most #costumers & #cosplayers wear #costumes to bring joy to others, some people (especially children) may become frightened when approached by someone in #costume. Two not-so-uncommon fears related to #costuming are #maskaphobia and #coulrophobia.

  • Maskaphobia is (as the name implies) a fear masks.
  • Coulrophobia is a persistent fear of clowns, where individuals may feel “shaken or traumatized” at the thought of them.

While neither term is currently listed in the World Health Organization’s ICD-10 or in the American Psychiatric Association’s categorization of disorders, both are very real for those who suffer from them.

Why Masks Can Frighten

While a precise cause explaining why someone might develop maskaphobia or coulrophobia isn’t yet known, both may be rooted in people’s general expectations of seeing others with human appearance and behavior. In a Sun article published a few weeks ago, Dr. Melanie Phelps (a British psychologist) said that as children, we are familiar with the appearance of our caregivers and family members and we see them as having a “safe and friendly human face”.  In terms of clowns, she said,

“Clown have unnatural, large, exaggerated and distorted features and therefore don’t match the ‘safe, friendly human’ pattern we have created in our minds.”

“We know that clown faces are brightly colored, with stark contrasts – for example wide bright red lips, against a very white background, with exaggerated smiles or expressions which are fixed and do not change with interaction. This triggers an ‘unsafe / does not match’ alert in our primal brains which indicates this type of face is unknown, not recognized, possibly unsafe, possibly a threat and we cannot read the facial expression correctly as it doesn’t match the actions or words.”

This inability to interact with clowns or mask wearers could potentially make someone feel fearful, panicky and threatened.

Like clown makeup, masks distort or completely hide the wearer’s appearance. Thus, a mask replaces the wearer’s human appearance with something that is both strange and unusual. If the wearer speaks, the sound may appear to come from out of nowhere since most masks don’t feature moving mouths. Thus, like clown makeup, masks can lead to that primal alert as described by Dr. Phelps.

Similar to clowns, it’s common practice that when someone wears a mask, they alter their own behavior and replace it with behaviors associated with the character that the mask represents. While many people love the freedom that a mask’s anonymity provides, a wearer could behave in socially unacceptable ways while hidden behind the mask.

In some cultures, masks may be worn as part of religious ceremonies. While members of that culture may see the masks as symbols worthy of respect, those of differing religious beliefs might view those same masks as being evil or dangerous.

Various forms of entertainment (TV shows, movies, plays, etc.) may deliberately exploit the fear that masks and clowns can generate. By doing so, such forms of entertainment may inadvertently contribute to someone developing maskaphobia or coulrophobia. After being exposed to images of stalking serial killers or disfigured anti-heroes lurking behind masks or heavy clown makeup, it shouldn’t be surprising that some people may begin to naturally wonder what is behind any mask or clown that they encounter, as well as their intentions.

Real world crimes committed by masked perpetrators can also make people uneasy, especially in the days, weeks and months immediately after a violent crime has occurred and the criminal(s) was masked.

Physical Symptoms

Maskaphobia and coulrophobia can lead to potentially serious physical symptoms for the sufferer. They may include:

  • Sweating.
  • Shaking.
  • Crying.
  • Heart palpitations.
  • Panic attack.
  • The sufferer might try to run away or even hide from the person in the mask or clown makeup.


Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) enables phobia sufferers to manage their fears by helping them gradually change the way that they think. It’s based on the interconnectedness of thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and behaviors. In some cases, anti-anxiety medication may be prescribed to help relieve the stressful symptoms.

What Can Cosplayers & Costumers Do?

If your mask or makeup inadvertently frightens someone, there may be some things that you can do to alleviate their fears:

  • Come out of character: show the person that you’re just a normal person wearing a mask or makeup.
  • If you’re wearing a mask, temporarily take it off to show that you’re not a threat.
  • Keep your distance: don’t continue to approach the frightened person as that will only intensify their fear.
  • If your costume permits and the scared person is a child, kneel down to their level. You’ll seem less intimidating that way.
  • Also, don’t wear your costume in an inappropriate place as you could find yourself getting arrested.