From Creepy to… Still Weird: The Carnival in Pop Culture


American summers just wouldn’t be the same without the siren song of a nearby Ferris wheel, a carousel, and maybe even a decent roller coaster. Pipe in some popcorn and cotton-candy smell, and some water pistols and stuffed animals, and you get to be a kid again and just play, at least for a little while. And is there anything more Stars ‘n’ Stripes wholesome than whirling around high above the colored lights of the midway?

Photo credit: “one sharp eye” on Flickr, Creative Commons

If you ask popular culture, oddly enough, the answer is yes. Carnivals, amusement parks, fairs: they’re mostly the fodder of horror and mayhem in books, television, and the movies. Stephen King’s current bestseller of a mystery novel, Joyland, for example, is set at a small amusement park. His protagonist, Devin, ends up staying past the summer on a psychic’s tip. Joyland itself is low on freaks — there’s the psychic, but that’s about it — and high on creaky machinery and cuddly mascots. But it does have a murder mystery, and a ghost that seems to have chosen Devin to solve it.

King has spoken many times of his love for Ray Bradbury’s 1962 novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes . In the book, a traveling carnival comes to town and enchants two teenage boys. To join the company, you had to sell your soul. (Some of you may better remember it as the live-action Disney movie, starring Jason Robards and Jonathan Pryce, that scared the crap out of you as a kid.)

The modern amusement park grew out of the tradition of World’s Fairs, and specifically, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. That Fair hosted the very first midway, and also the very first Ferris wheel of all. One bummer: each car accommodated 60 people, which surely cut down on the making out. Also, the company wouldn’t let anyone get married on it.

Another bummer: the fair also ended up playing host to America’s first serial killer, Howard Henry Holmes. As Erik Larson recounts in his bestselling “non-fiction novel,” Devil in the White City , Holmes was a sort of lapsed pharmacist. After scamming a former employer out of her ownership of a small drugstore, and likely killing her, he built himself a mansion he called the Castle. It contained a dungeon where Holmes would trap and kill his victims, many of whom were guests at the part of the Castle that was a hotel, in town for the Fair. Few seemed to miss the women he preyed on, perhaps because there were so many people coming and going that it was impossible to keep track.

From the World’s Fair grew the “traveling carnivals,” which took some elements of the circus freak show and some of the rides common at the World’s Fair and transported them all over the country. In the 1920s and 1930s, the “freak show” that came with the rides was almost as much of an attraction as the rides themselves. Hollywood, sensing rich territory, made more than a few movies about carnivals. One of the first and most notorious of these was Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), which you can watch for free at the Internet Archive. Browning’s use of actual “freaks” in the film inspired quite a bit of consternation from both audiences, who found the freaks “shocking,” and even critics. The New York Times called it “not for children.”

There was also Nightmare Alley (1947), a Tyrone Power vehicle in which a powerful carnival barker falls from grace and becomes a geek — i.e., the circus freak who eats live chickens right in front of the rubes.

Given this parade of horrors it’s hardly surprising to find that the hell dimension in the 1940 Disney film Pinocchio is an amusement park called Pleasure Island. There wayward boys get to ride roller coasters, but the price is that they are gradually being transformed into donkeys, a sort of “freak” transformation in itself.

But as the 1960s came on, and the rise of the animal and disability rights movements came into play, the freak show portion of the carnival began to falter. It is now illegal, for example, to exhibit “deformed human beings” in Michigan and Pennsylvania. Sideshows still exist, but they tend to focus more on skills like sword-swallowing than on “freaks.” Even the WASPiest WASP of all is welcome to learn how to eat fire.

That doesn’t mean the carnival has faded out as a trope of popular culture, though. Katherine Dunn’s novel Geek Love is the most literary treatment it has recently gotten. The book tells the story of the Binewski Fabulon, a carnival run by the parents of the freaks in it. As that plot summary would suggest, Dunn stuck with the darkness traditionally associated with it:

A carnival in daylight is an unfinished beast, anyway. Rain makes it a ghost.

Some recent books — like Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus — have made the carnival into a more romantic place. In Gruen’s case, that’s because her story is really a literal romance, accessorized with elephants. In Morgenstern’s, magicians and wizards steal the center ring. But both suggested there was heart as well as despair to be found at the carnival. So does Joyland, actually. There’s a real trend here.

But if I were making the rules about carnivals going forward, I’d want them to retain their weirdness. Of course, we all love the idea of a motley crew of carnies and roustabouts finding a home with each other even if they’re cast out elsewhere. But then, just as in HBO’s Carnivale, we’d want the sliminess of management to be offset by the possibility of a messiah right there in the carny ranks.