Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

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What’s the Difference Between a Primary and a Caucus?

Looks like these stickers were handed out at a primary, not a caucus.
Looks like these stickers were handed out at a primary, not a caucus.
jdwfoto/iStock via Getty Images

Leading up to a U.S. presidential election, each state (and territory) must vote to decide which candidates it wants to compete in that election—but how exactly that decision happens differs from state to state. Some have primaries, while others hold caucuses.

A primary is a relatively straightforward process that resembles any other election. Essentially, you go to your designated polling station, which could be anywhere from a school to a sports complex, and check your favorite candidate on a ballot. Generally, any candidate who receives at least 15 percent of the votes is eligible to earn delegates, the elected officials who vote to decide whom to choose as the party’s presidential nominee at the national convention. Those delegates are then divided among eligible candidates in proportion to how many votes they earned. Since primaries are short and simple, almost all states and territories use them to help choose presidential nominees these days.

However, there are several holdouts that still opt for caucuses, a more manual (and more complicated) voting process with roots in late 18th-century American elections. During a Democratic caucus, participants arrive at a local venue and split up into groups based on which candidate they’re supporting; there’s usually a group for undecided voters, too. Volunteers count how many people are in each group, and—similar to primaries—any candidate who has at least 15 percent of the supporters is deemed “viable,” or eligible to earn delegates. Unlike primaries, caucuses don’t end after that initial tally. Supporters of candidates who didn’t meet the 15-percent threshold can then join groups for viable candidates; volunteers do a recount, and delegates are apportioned based on those updated numbers. Republican caucuses are similar, only the voting happens on an informal private ballot.

If your state holds a primary, there’s a pretty good chance you can get in and out without talking to more than a person or two—and it could even come as a surprise if someone tries to persuade you to vote for a certain candidate. At Democratic caucuses, on the other hand, that’s an integral part of the process. Before the initial count, people try to convince undecided voters to join their group (or supporters of a candidate who looks like they might not reach the viability threshold), and after the initial count, another wave of campaigning happens in order to claim supporters of unviable candidates. This, in addition to all the manual counting and re-counting, means that caucus attendees can count on being there for hours longer than primary participants.

Caucuses are a great way to see how citizens really feel about presidential hopefuls on a deeper, more personal level than polls and stats are often able to tell us, but the overall hassle—not to mention the fear of inaccurate vote-counting—has caused more and more states to switch to primaries in recent years. As Business Insider reports, there are only eight places that are still holding caucuses in 2020: Iowa, Nevada, North Dakota, Wyoming, Kentucky (Republican only), American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, and Guam.

Because Iowa’s caucuses are always first on the schedule, they’re often considered a little more important than some others—find out why here.

[h/t Business Insider]

Why Isn't Fish Considered Meat During Lent?

AlexRaths/iStock via Getty Images
AlexRaths/iStock via Getty Images

For six Fridays each spring, Catholics observing Lent skip sirloin in favor of fish sticks and swap Big Macs for Filet-O-Fish. Why?

Legend has it that centuries ago a medieval pope with connections to Europe's fishing business banned red meat on Fridays to give his buddies' industry a boost. But that story isn't true. Sunday school teachers have a more theological answer: Jesus fasted for 40 days and died on a Friday. Catholics honor both occasions by making a small sacrifice: avoiding animal flesh one day out of the week. That explanation is dandy for a homily, but it doesn't explain why only red meat and poultry are targeted and seafood is fine.

For centuries, the reason evolved with the fast. In the beginning, some worshippers only ate bread. But by the Middle Ages, they were avoiding meat, eggs, and dairy. By the 13th century, the meat-fish divide was firmly established—and Saint Thomas Aquinas gave a lovely answer explaining why: sex, simplicity, and farts.

In Part II of his Summa Theologica, Aquinas wrote:

"Fasting was instituted by the Church in order to bridle the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex. Wherefore the Church forbade those who fast to partake of those foods which both afford most pleasure to the palate, and besides are a very great incentive to lust. Such are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products."

Put differently, Aquinas thought fellow Catholics should abstain from eating land-locked animals because they were too darn tasty. Lent was a time for simplicity, and he suggested that everyone tone it down. It makes sense. In the 1200s, meat was a luxury. Eating something as decadent as beef was no way to celebrate a holiday centered on modesty. But Aquinas had another reason, too: He believed meat made you horny.

"For, since such like animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust. Hence the Church has bidden those who fast to abstain especially from these foods."

There you have it. You can now blame those impure thoughts on a beef patty. (Aquinas might have had it backwards though. According to the American Dietetic Association, red meat doesn't boost "seminal matter." Men trying to increase their sperm count are generally advised to cut back on meat. However, red meat does improve testosterone levels, so it's give-and-take.)

Aquinas gave a third reason to avoid meat: it won't give you gas. "Those who fast," Aquinas wrote, "are forbidden the use of flesh meat rather than of wine or vegetables, which are flatulent foods." Aquinas argued that "flatulent foods" gave your "vital spirit" a quick pick-me-up. Meat, on the other hand, boosts the body's long-lasting, lustful humors—a religious no-no.

But why isn't fish considered meat?

The reason is foggy. Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, for one, has been used to justify fasting rules. Paul wrote, " … There is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fish, and another of birds" (15:39). That distinction was possibly taken from Judaism's own dietary restrictions, which separates fleishig (which includes land-locked mammals and fowl) from pareve (which includes fish). Neither the Torah, Talmud, or New Testament clearly explains the rationale behind the divide.

It's arbitrary, anyway. In the 17th century, the Bishop of Quebec ruled that beavers were fish. In Latin America, it's OK to eat capybara, as the largest living rodent is apparently also a fish on Lenten Fridays. Churchgoers around Detroit can guiltlessly munch on muskrat every Friday. And in 2010, the Archbishop of New Orleans gave alligator the thumbs up when he declared, “Alligator is considered in the fish family."

Thanks to King Henry VIII and Martin Luther, Protestants don't have to worry about their diet. When Henry ruled, fish was one of England's most popular dishes. But when the Church refused to grant the King a divorce, he broke from the Church. Consuming fish became a pro-Catholic political statement. Anglicans and the King's sympathizers made it a point to eat meat on Fridays. Around that same time, Martin Luther declared that fasting was up to the individual, not the Church. Those attitudes hurt England's fishing industry so much that, in 1547, Henry's son King Edward VI—who was just 10 at the time—tried to reinstate the fast to improve the country's fishing economy. Some Anglicans picked the practice back up, but Protestants—who were strongest in Continental Europe—didn't need to take the bait.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This story was updated in 2020.

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