Hey everybody! The carnival roadshow has arrived! Wait! Where are you going? Come back! It’s the circus! Don’t you like clowns? Come back!
The circus as an institution is the embodiment of the fantastic and the elevated. In the era before the NBA, BTS, WWE, and the movies, it is where people went for that heightened experience. See things that you could only have imagined, participate in games of chance at the midway, and thrill yourselves with adrenaline rides and funhouse mazes. It still holds that allure to this day, and The Scariest Things wants to look back at how horror took hold at the Circus.
Perhaps the most controversial movie of all time involved the circus. The potency of Freaks was so shocking that it helped establish the Hayes Code, neutering the power of horror for about twenty-five years. When the curtain came back up, so did the horror film, and in turn, the carnival horror film as well.
There’s something rascally about the carnival. Not only do they bring the wondrous, scary, and wild elements with them, but they are outsiders. They are traveling vagabonds, plying their wares to the unwary, and that’s part of the fun. Scare me… you say. I will enter that gaping maw into a twisty maze. I can beat your rigged games! Give me a chance with that plastic ring, I’m going to get that stuffed pony! Sure, I’ll go into that mysterious tent and look at the ghastly abominations. I’m not afraid!
Or am I?
These films have been listed chronologically, starting with the one that set the template for all of them… that being Todd Browning’s notorious classic:
To say that Freaks changed the game is an understatement. It SCARED people in a way that no film prior had before. It horrified society to the point that the industry changed its rules. And yet, the source of the horror is that people weren’t prepared to see people who were the sideshow freaks, and through a modern lens it is more sad than terrifying. It still takes some fortitude to watch it because empathy takes over, and you can’t help to feel for these performers. But it really was a tradition handed down since the days of the jester and handed down through Billy Barty and Warwick Davis and Peter Dinklage. The little people… the different people had become something to gawk at, but this movie told you to look at it from a different perspective. The real monster here was Lela Hyam’s Venus, the schemer, and manipulator, and that is the true power of Freaks.
Freaks also graced us with one of the best quotes ever for the horror fans out there. Sure, we’re weirdos, but we welcome all those who are curious about the darker side of films:
“One of us! One of us! Gooble gobble, gooble gobble! One of us!”
Angelo Rossitto in Freaks (1932)
Circus of Horrors (1960)
What do you do when you are on the run? You join the circus! Anton Diffring plays a cosmetic surgeon who flees to the circus under a pseudonym when he botches a surgery and takes on a new name (Dr. Schueler) and the job of the ringmaster when a bear mauling takes out the current ringmaster. Schueler, in an attempt to find new talent, recruits disfigured criminal women to become his performers. In exchange, he makes these women beautiful with his flawless cosmetic surgery. But that scheme falls apart when one of the women dies in a knife-throwing “accident”, and his secret on the verge of being uncovered plans to cover his tracks with murderous efficiency, using the cover of the circus dangers to cover his tracks. This AIP feature was considered to be part of a “Sadian Trilogy” along with Peeping Tom (1959) and Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) due to the sadism, cruelty, and violence delivered in the story.
In a move presaged by King Kong, and repeated in Jurassic Park: The Lost World, money-grubbing interests lead to the capture of a monster to put on display at the circus. The problem is, this is a baby creature, and its momma, Gorgo is none too happy and is ready to level London to get her baby back. A worthy kaiju movie that never really took hold, Gorgo was a great-looking monster and had you rooting for her to just wreck London because as we all know, wildlife kidnappers and poachers deserve what’s coming for them.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
Carnival of Souls is a dreamy and trance-like trip, a quiet introspective psychologically haunting art piece. Mary Henry (Candace Hillighloss) is a car crash survivor who subsequently has been suffering from visions of mysterious apparitions that lead her to a deserted carnival pavilion near the Great Salt Lake. She has recurring dreams of being pulled into the pavilion populated by ghostly dancers. The sensation you definitely get is whether Mary actually died in the car crash, and she is in Limbo, and is, herself, a ghost. This microbudget film is reminiscent of European movies like Repulsion (1965) and Eyes Without a Face (1960), both similar psychological black and white quiet and brooding studies. The movie has since been deemed an underground cult classic.
Psycho Circus (1966) AKA Circus of Fear
Psycho Circus was pitched as a horror film, but it plays more like a thriller, making it a bit of a horror adjacent property. But, since it’s a Hammer production, and Christopher Lee is in it, we are giving it the horror nod of approval. When a group of bank robbers try and escape through a nearby circus, they are eliminated by what appear to be circus-related killings. Christopher Lee is the mask-wearing knife thrower Drago, the main suspect, but there are plenty of suspicious characters and plenty of motives with a suitcase of loose money gone missing. Klaus Kinski and Suzy Kendall also star in this big top whodunit.
Whether it was overlooked or just forgotten, Berserk remains a surprisingly fun and violent gem of circus horror, starring the one and only Joan Crawford, still glamorous in her sixties but now confined to B-movie roles to maintain her leading-lady status. Joan plays the ringleader of a traveling circus where somebody is sabotaging the productions leading to a number of bloody “accidents”. Berserk was a movie at the hinge of the MPAA Rating changes and was a bit of a boundary pusher with the gore. Worth it alone for the scene where Diana Dors is the unfortunate woman in the box that gets cut in half. Hey, accidents are bound to happen, right?
Vampire Circus (1972)
Hammer Pictures dedicated a good portion of their catalog to period piece 19th Century era creature features. But when just vampires aren’t enough, then push them together with a circus, and voila! A match made in heaven? Well, if heaven is Serbia, then yes. Count Mitterhaus is a vampire who after tormenting a Servian village for years, is cornered and staked by the local villagers, but he curses them with his dying breaths. From beyond the grave, Mitterhaus has mesmerized a troupe of circus performers to be his minions of revenge, and with each kill, he gets closer to reviving his material body. If you can maneuver your way through a Byzantine Hammer plot, there’s a fun period piece vampire flick here. And it’s worth it alone, watching to see the mighty David Prowse in a role other than Darth Vader.
The Elephant Man (1980)
I am not an animal! I am a human being!
John Hurt as John Merrick in The Elephant Man
This is the response to Freak’s call. Not so much a horror movie, but a movie that is hard to watch for exactly the same reasons as Freaks was difficult to watch. Come see the deformed monstrosity that is The Elephant Man! John Hurt is phenomenal under all the prosthetics and bolstered by the stellar cast including Anthony Hopkins, John Gielgud, and Anne Bancroft, this somber drama was an inspiration. But it still dared you to look at and sympathize with a sensitive man burdened with horrific deformities. Nominated for Best Picture, actor (Hurt), and director (David Lynch).
The Funhouse (1981)
Perhaps the top of the pyramid where it comes to the Carnival horror trope. The Funhouse literally layers on its horrors, by putting a monster, inside of a Frankenstein’s monster, inside a scary funhouse. The conceit here is classic. You go into a funhouse to be thrilled with jump scares and twisty mazes, but it’s all in the name of good fun… unless it is a death trap. This is perhaps the B-side exploitation version of The Elephant Man. The deformed victim here is indeed a violent monster, driven mad and violent by his conditions. Gunther doesn’t want your pity, he wants to put an axe in the back of your head! One of the more entertaining slasher movies of the era.
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
In Something Wicked This Way Comes, the carnival is coming to depression-era small-town Illinois. Jonathan Pryce is the sinister Mr. Dark, a sorcerer who runs the carnival, which promises that this magical place can make your wishes come true. But in a classic Faustian deal, such wishes come at a very steep price. Two young boys, Jim (Charles Halloway) and Bill (Vidal Peterson), discover the sinister truths of what Mr. Dark has been up to. The classic Ray Bradbury tale was brought to the big screen in 1983, surprisingly by the mouse house, Walt Disney productions, who was looking to do more mature projects at the time. The film struggled a bit, as the darkness of the Bradbury tale collided with Disney’s desire to make it still family-friendly (it would be decades before they would truly tap into darker motifs) but the movie still managed to convey a macabre whimsy.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
For sheer manic silliness and fun, it is hard to beat Killer Klowns from Outer Space, which populates the screen with a bevy of grotesque yet amusing and colorful clowns. They are no ordinary clowns, of course, but aliens bent on turning the population of Crescent Cover into feedstock. They capture the locals and cocoon them in cotton candy, utilizing deadly acid-infused pies, killer shadow puppets, and popcorn shotguns as their weapons of choice. You have to forgive a bit of B-Movie acting (it’s pretty awful) but the sheer joy and audacity of the production papers over all the wooden dialogue in this ’80s cult classic. The over-the-top moment of a can-you-top-this movie? Klownzilla. Full Stop.
Santa Sangre (1989)
If you know anything about director Alejandro Jodorowski, you know that his productions are epic and very, very strange. Santa Sangre is a prime example of the surrealistic visions of Jodorowski, and defies any rational explanation. It’s a story of a man who as a child fled his father’s family circus and his trapeze artist mother’s bizarre cult, only to end up in an asylum. His traumatic experiences led him to see his parents mutilate each other and later become the hypnotized means of killing people his insane mother demanded… only to find out his mother was dead and this was all in his mind. This movie is bizarre and feels drenched in LSD. It is one trippy experience, and not for the faint of heart or the easily confused.
House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
For better or worse, this is the movie that broke through for Rob Zombie. House of 1000 Corpses, is for the lack of a better term: Gonzo. It introduces the audience to the awful Firefly family, purveyors of “The Museum of Monsters and Madmen”, wherein a group of foolish journalists stumbles into the murderous locale. The museum is more of a roadside attraction, dressed up to be the amusement ride from hell, and the owner Captain Spaulding Firefly (Sid Haig), and his family of miscreants await to mutilate all visitors. This is a mean-hearted Texas Chainsaw Massacre wannabe movie, and none of the protagonists are likable, making for a pretty miserable experience for viewers except those who come for torture, rape, and gore.
Final Destination 3 (2006)
Those of you familiar with my criticisms of the Final Destination series, that the “you can’t cheat fate” trope is preposterous and manipulatively annoying. However, it is undeniable that all of the franchise’s centerpiece moments are masterpieces in horror set design and execution. Take an event that all of us have questioned, “Is this really safe?” and then graphically show us that it is horribly dangerous. In the third installment, it uses a roller coaster, a classic Vekoma corkscrew steel scream machine that comes apart on a fateful ride killing the entire collection of riders. In classic Final Destination fashion, it is the under-celebrated frequent final girl Mary Elizabeth Winstead who is the prescient rider who denies destiny and sets into motion the improbable deaths to follow. This movie will make you question whether you want to get on the next rollercoaster at the destination theme park you go to.
In the big finale of Zombieland, the survivors flee to an Amusement Park that is rumored to be free of zombies, but the power is on, and as soon as the crew starts to enjoy the rides, the sound and lights of the amusement park attract the horde and chaos ensues. Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and Wichita (Emma Stone) defend themselves in a tower drop ride in a terrific set-piece, while Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) deals with his darkest fear of clown zombies. It’s a terrific way to apply the idea of the carnival shooting gallery with plenty of undead targets and is a perfect way to highlight the horror-comedy elements of the film.
The Last Circus (2010)
Sergio (Happy Clown): Why Are you a clown? Javier (Sad Clown) What about you? Sergio: Because if I wasn’t a clown, I’d be a murderer. Javier: Me too.
From the Last Circus (2010)
The Spanish clown-on-clown revenge epic should be at the top of any circus horror aficionado’s list of must-see pictures. Sergio (Carlos Areces) is an emotionally compromised tragic Pagliacci-like clown, who is unable to make people laugh. He is the circus sad clown. He falls in love with the beautiful acrobat Natalia (Carolina Bang), the abused wife of Javier’s bullying “happy” clown Sergio (Antonio de la Torre). This love triangle comes to multiple violent episodes of revenge and counter-revenge, and the director Álex de la Iglesia (Witching and Bitching) captures these events in a visually stunning presentation.
American Horror Story: Freakshow (2014)
The long-running FX series American Horror Stories featured a traveling circus in season four, entitled “Freakshow”. It chronicles one of the last remaining traveling freakshows in Florida in 1952. The showrunners tapped into the Freaks DNA stream and, with special effects created the ensemble of curious circus performers. As is par for the course with AHS, multiple storylines are seeded, with murder most foul aplenty, and the omnipresent threat of prejudicial fear lurking over the company. Season four was one of the most successful of the series to date and became the most-watched program on FX at the date of its release. It was nominated for a whopping twenty Emmy Awards, scoring acting nominations for series regulars (and acting legends) Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson, Finn Wittrock, and Denis O’Hare. Sarah Paulson was particularly spectacular playing the siamese twins Bette and Dot Tattler.
Jurassic World (2015)
The cautionary tale lesson from Jurassic Park was not heeded. The lure of a prehistoric zoo proved too alluring, and the damned thing got built. And people went… by the thousands. The Jurassic World fulfilled the biggest hopes of children everywhere, and the fears of anyone with common sense. Would I go to see an ankylosaur in person? Hell yeah! But as Jeff Goldblum would note “Nature will find a way.” All the cheering and wonder turned into dinosaur snack time when, completely unsurprisingly, the safety containment measures failed due to the hubris of the park developers. Didn’t anybody learn anything? JW earns this listing over JP because this amusement park fulfilled the promise both in terms of what could be done and what should have been learned.
Escape From Tomorrow (2014)
Escape from Tomorrow is an audacious guerilla movie that was shot on the sly at Walt Disney World. It follows the story of a sad sack dad, Jim (Roy Abramson) who has recently been fired and is on vacation with his family but becomes fixated on a pair of French teenage girls. This is followed by some wicked hallucinations and a conspiracy plot that Jim falls into a sinister trap. The movie shifts from socially uncomfortable, to trippy, to tragic in the end. The marvel of this film is that the producers went to extreme lengths to prevent Disney from finding out that this movie was being made, to the point that all post-production was done in South Korea. Everybody and their kids use their cameras all the time at the Magic Kingdom, and it is nearly impossible to monitor the sneaky attempts to get all the filming in to make the full production, but required extensive preparatory staging and planning. The fact that Disney hasn’t put out a hit squad to crush this film is rather remarkable.
It: Chapter Two (2019)
Here is the movie you probably were thinking about! Almost all horror fans went to see both It films, and for good reason. Pennywise the clown is perhaps the most iconic horror villain of the era, as fantastically and frighteningly depicted by Bill Skarsgård. In Chapter 2, the adult Bill Denbrough (James McEvoy) wanders into the carnival funhouse looking to save a little boy who he believes is captured by Pennywise, but before he can save him, gets ambushed by Pennywise. Bill has failed. If horror fans were to name a singular horror clown, put money down that it will be Pennywise.
When is love completely unhealthy? Perhaps when you fall in love with an amusement park machine. Jeanne (Noémie Merlant) is a young woman who struggles with the expectations that she should find a nice young man. She has an aversion to falling in love with men. With humans, in fact. Jeanne is an amusement park worker who has developed an unhealthy relationship with the spin ride, whom she has named Jumbo. This dark fantasy isn’t a horror film, but it is definitely a dark fantasy. There is a European trend of young women directors exploring the bizarre when it comes to coming of age, and this is one of the most stirring and strange of them all.
Willy’s Wonderland (2021)
This is what the horror reboot of the Banana Splits should have been. It is pure insanity, with Nicolas Cage playing a mute janitor at Willy’s Wonderland, a Chuck-E-Cheez-like amusement center. A suicidal Satanic ritual by the owner of Willy’s has transferred the evil souls into the fuzzy animatronic automatons who become sentient and homicidal. The results are pure B-movie Splatterhouse entertainment. This is a film that revels in its preposterousness and holds nothing back. Cage is fully engaged and in full-on Cage-match mode, pure adrenaline silliness. It’s so crazy, it just might work! (C’mon, it’s Nic Cage, you know you want to see this!)