Carnivals of Fear: Clowns, Calliopes, and Carnies

One of the most enduring horror tropes is that of the scary carnival. Eerie calliope music, an atmosphere of unpredictability, overstimulating sights and sounds, funhouses designed to mess with our perception of reality, and a history of grifting (have you ever won a ring toss? I sure haven’t) all make for a great horror setting. Filmmakers, writers, and artists have been taking advantage for years. It’s done beautifully in IT: Chapter 2, with a neon color pallet and an excellent house of mirrors scene.

Mikhail Bahktin has a theory around the “carnivalization” of literature, stating that the ritual of the carnival is a big part of human society. He identifies four elements of the carnival: interaction between diverse groups of people, weird behavior only acceptable in the context of the carnival, mixture of opposites, and irreverence.

But ultimately, circuses and carnivals are meant to be fun. So why is it so easy to find the scary side of them?

One element, I think, is the transient nature of fairs and carnivals. Circuses crop up in empty fields and leave without a trace, save for the candy wrapper detritus within a week. When we go to a carnival, we don’t know any of the people there, though we’re watching them perform, eating the food they prepare us, and trusting them to oil the gears of the rides we trust to send us upside down without dropping us. We have very few clues about who these people are, and it’s likely we’ll never see them again. There’s something unsettling about this, for most, on an unconscious level, because of our natural fear of the unknown and because of something else: our mistrust of nomads.

Circus AlexanderAt some point, humans all over the globe decided to Stay In One Place, plant food, and build homes, towns, and eventually cities. It happened at different times, depending on where we lived, and it didn’t happen to everyone. Nomadic cultures existed, and still exist, but they’re minorities, and usually oppressed minorities, like Romani people and Irish Travellers. (As someone who isn’t a member of any of these cultures, I won’t speak too much about what I don’t know, but I think the discrimination against these groups plays into my theory here.) Settled people don’t quite know how to handle nomadic people—they’re an “other,” and as with most people we other, we view them with some degree of fear. (See also The True Knot in Doctor Sleep.)

We class the people in traveling shows as nomads to be awed and feared. If they were to commit acts of malfeasance, how would we find them later, we wonder? Carnies come and go, and we don’t think a lot about where they’re headed after they leave our own town.

There’s also the pretty common fear of clowns. The technical term is “coulrophobia.” Full disclosure, I don’t exactly have a phobia, but I’m definitely unsettled by clowns and avoid them if I can.

Aside from the fact that taking something innocent and childish and turning it into a nightmare is a classic horror trope, I think there’s something inherently creepy about clowns. (Anyone remember 2016’s evil clown plague? And to think, that was the warmup before the absolute chaos of 2020…). The Guardian has a really interesting take on the history of clowning and proposes that it’s always had a dark side. (Note: this article contains the greatest oxymoron I’ve ever read in my life: “therapy clown” when citing a study about one that helped kids relax before surgical procedures. As a child I would have been a HELL NOPE on that one.)

The author, unsure about a clown, circa 2004

There’s also no arguing with the fact that Stephen King, aided and abetted by Tim Curry (and later, Bill Skarsgård) caused a major cultural shift when he put Pennywise on the pantheon of horror greats; although It the creature has many more forms and powers, Pennywise will always be its symbol.

Pennywise has plenty of unsettling company, from Twisty to Art the Clown. DC comics capitalized on the culture fear of and obsession with clowns with the renaissance of the Joker, arguably the main character of The Dark Knight, who got his own movie in the form of 2019’s Joker. (Which I have Opinions about but this is a horror column so I might actually shut the hell up for once and discuss that another time.) In popular culture, clowns have shifted solidly into the “villain” category.

John Wayne Gacy, an actual serial killer who dressed as a clown, sure didn’t help clown PR either.

Then there’s the “circus freak” element that American Horror Story tackled back in 2014. I’ve talked before about how humans have a fear of people who are different, and many times, this extends to body types that are out of the ordinary. Thankfully, we’ve made progress since the days of circus freakshows where people with biological differences made their living by exhibiting themselves, but we still discriminate against disabled people and have a difficult-to-achieve standard for normative body types.

Katherine Dunn deals with this theme in Geek Love, a boundary-pushing text I read in one of my favorite college classes: “Beautiful Monsters: Literature of the Grotesque.” That’s also where I learned about Bahktin, and where I wrote this story as a final project. In the text, a set of parents use every technique they can to give birth to their own freak show, a group of siblings with extraordinary differences and powers. A mind-bending ethics puzzle and a damn good time, the book makes it onto my list of recs below.

All of this rambling has only scratched the surface of the great (and not-so-great) circus and carnival horror out there. I’ll leave my favorites below, but I’m always looking for new suggestions, so leave ‘em in the comments.

Recommendations:

“Some Children Wander By Mistake” by John Conolly, which is probably my favorite in the anthology Nocturnes.

Geek Love by Katharine Dunn

The Palace of Laughter by Jon Berkeley. This one is YA (I haven’t read it since I was a kid), and it’s super good. I don’t remember all the details, but there’s a traveling fair that steals people’s laughter.

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