Even a Town with a Dark Secret likes a good party now and then. But being the kind of place it is, the town's big event probably wouldn't be the sort of thing you'd want to attend. Oh, yeah -- face painting, parades, that's how it always starts. But then there's running and screaming. And you're the one doing both.
Perhaps you're first on the menu for the bake sale, maybe you're the winner of a Lottery Of Doom, or maybe - and this one's popular - you're going to be sacrificed in a fertility ritual. Either way, expect your impending horrible death to be offset by bunting, may poles and dancing.
It's a common trope, of course, and with good reason; the idea of a bizarre town conspiracy that kills outsiders is creepy enough, but to have that turn into a big celebration that you can bring the kids to adds an extra level of twisted terror to the proceedings. It also provides a useful way to get all your creepy village extras in one big scene and emphasize that whatever is going on is happening with the full consent of everyone, except possibly the protagonist.
A variation on the trope is that the killings are performed by a minority and that the rest of the town is oblivious. This, too, has a twisted horror to it - the idea that families are participating in a horrible murder without realizing is very creepy.
Not to be confused with Fate Worse than Death, though the two can overlap. Or with Crappy Carnival.
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Anime & Manga
In Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, a young boy discovers that the village he has just moved to suffers mysterious deaths and disappearances after every Watanagashi Festival.
The way Watanagashi apparently was originally celebrated. Wata can mean "cotton" or "intestines".
The spiritual successor, Umineko no Naku Koro ni, tries hard to follow in its predecessor's footsteps. During the ending of the second arc, Beatrice throws a ball and gets her new slave, Battler, to dress her up for it, then brings him down to the ball to show off to all of her mook guests. After that, he and his grandfather become the main course.
In One Piece, the town of Whiskey Peak seems like a constant pirate boozefest, but it's actually a pirate trap, run by a large group of bounty hunters. They get pirates to pass out drunk, then kill them. Unfortunately for them, they found their match in the Straw Hat Pirates, who had already shown the ability to mop a place clean of mooks. It also didn't help that Zoro Never Gets Drunk.
The manga Umi no Misaki has this same eerie flavor for a little while, until the main character realizes that it's more a case of A God Am I. The Rising Dragon Festival, which culminates in a Murder-Suicide, is a straight example.
In Pandora Hearts, Isla Yura throws Oz a second Coming-of-Age party since his initial ceremony was interrupted. At first, the party proceeds as normal with friends, family, and members of high society showing up to congratulate Oz and celebrate the occasion. Cue the discovery of a crazed religious cult that worships the Abyss, a slew of Brainwashed and CrazyEvil Orphans, and the Headhunter who's been killing off members of the Nightray family, all within the mansion where the party is being held, and you get this trope. Turns out, Yura plotted the whole thing as a means to recreate the Tragedy of Sablier by using Alice and Leo as sacrifices and having Oz unwillingly perform the role of the treacherous friend. Suffice to say, it was one of the more tragic and disturbing story arcs in the series.
Subverted in the second season of Mushishi. A sake brewer gets lost in the mountains, and ends up stumbling on a mysterious gathering in the middle of the forest where strange, glowing sake is being served. Years later his son manages to brew seemingly identical sake and ends up stumbling on the same gathering, where possession of the sake makes people assume he's one of them, until it becomes clear that his sake doesn't have the mystical properties it's supposed to have, and he finds himself chased through the woods by an angry crowd of sinister mystics. It turns out that they were simply Mushishi who were miffed that he unintentionally cheated them with what they considered a fake medicine, and the series' protagonist, Ginko, who is among them, lets him off with a warning and revelation that his sake does have some supernatural qualities that the Mushishi would be willing to pay for as long as he's being honest about it.
A town in Hellblazer accidentally causes one of these when they don't realize the pagan costume festival they're reviving is causing everyone to go insane (example: a man in a baby outfit reveals he's jealous of the attention his infant son gets from his wife and kills them both; a person with a Rictus Grin mask makes sure everyone around him is smiling...). Constantine and a friend figure out that loud Punk Rock can disrupt the effects but are too late to prevent the entire town from being blown up, along with Constantine's friend.
A classic example is the original version of The Wicker Man, in which a policeman investigating a girl's disappearance finds out that she is going to be sacrificed by pagan villagers. But the truth is even worse...
The remake does much the same thing, although much less believably. Don't watch it without the RiffTrax!
Two Thousand Maniacs! is based on this; the murderous celebration in question is an instrument of revenge for a Southern town's destruction in the Civil War a century earlier.
In Hot Fuzz, someone is murdered at the village fete by having part of the church tower land on their head and tear it apart. The headline? "A fete worse than death."
In Dagon, a Spanish town looks to be harmless enough... until its populace comes to drag you to their temple for a ritual sacrifice in the form of breeding if you're female, or being skinned alive if male... props for the "God" being actually there to savor the sacrifice.
In the 2007 movie Cthulhu (also loosely based on The Shadow over Innsmouth) the May Festival is both mentioned and seen, but plays little apparent role in the apocalyptic events and Human Sacrifice that follow.
Inverted in Population 436. In that movie, the founder of the town decided that everything was fine and there were no problems in the town as long as the population remained at 436 exactly, but if it ever went higher or lower, disaster would strike; also, punishment would fall on anyone who deliberately messed with the status quo. To that end, when the census taker sent to investigate gets there, they won't let him leave...and they have a big sendoff party for a woman from the town (who goes to the gallows happily!) to balance him out. Near the end, the census taker escapes town with a young woman who was being held captive. In an unexpected twist, the rule proves correct, as he and the girl are killed when they're hit by an oncoming truck.
In the James Bond flick Live and Let Die, there's a scene in the opening where a British agent is watching a somber funeral procession in New Orleans. When he asks a stranger whose funeral it's for, the stranger says "Yours," then stabs him right in the middle of the street. The procession casually walks over to the body and places it in the coffin, then breaks out in celebration in a dark twist on the tradition. Mind you, this is happening on Bourbon Street in broad daylight and the funeral goers are all ages.
It later happens again to an American agent.
The "celebration" is actually a jazz funeral, a New Orleans tradition.
In the film and musical of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the entire number "God, That's Good!" is a celebration of this trope. Slicing up the odd barbershop customer for meat pies is bad enough, but watching the patrons of the pie shop devour the delectables with insatiable mirth is very eerie, no matter how cheery the music.
The masked ball in "Poor Thing" might also qualify. Nobody gets killed, but everyone has a good laugh over the rape of Lucy Barker.
Averted in Joe Versus The Volcano, where the eponymous Joe knows about his fate going in; he volunteers to go anyway because he thinks he's going to die of a "brain cloud" anyway. While the volcano did wanted a willing sacrifice, the volcano spitting Joe out, with the ensuing destruction of the island showed that it apparently didn't want a deceived sacrifice.
And then there's Jack Sparrow in the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, where he's being honored by a primitive tribe as a god who they intend to "free"... by roasting and eating his corporeal "prison".
The 200th Anniversary celebration in Batman, where the Joker hosts the party—and then releases the Smilex gas.
In the 1990 black comedy Quick Change, three bank robbers are trying to flee the seemingly infinite sprawl of New York City, while pondering their next move, they suddenly realize that they're in a very poor and squalid Hispanic neighborhood, where two men are staging a barbaric "jousting match" for the entertainment of an unsmiling audience. It gives one of our anti-heroes the heebie-jeebies.
"It's bad luck to even see somethin' like that!"
In the future depicted in Logan's Run everyone looks forward to their renewal in a celebration known as Carousel. Unfortunately Carousel is actually a brutal form of population control, where you obliviously sacrifice yourself as your friends and neighbours cheer you on.
In Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery", a village holds a village event in which families draw straws to see which family - and which family member - is the winner. That member is then stoned to death by everyone else.
This was parodied at the end of the South Park episode "Britney's New Look", where a headless Britney Spears is photographed to death by the locals.
In fact that's what celebrities are for: SACRIFICES, which makes sense.
In American Gods, the protagonist visits a small town in which, every year, a child goes missing. At roughly the same time, the people of the town play a game in which an old car is left on a nearby frozen lake and they bet how soon into Spring it will be before it sinks. The protagonist puts two and two together and opens the trunk of the car to find a murdered girl inside. Even worse, he's swum to the bottom of the lake to do this and can see all the other cars down there. The killer is a small god who sacrifices the children to himself in exchange for keeping the town prosperous.
An extra dark example, because the townsfolk don't know the significance of their own ritual.
In Stephen King's Wizard and Glass, the people of Mejis celebrate a harvest festival which culminates with the burning of an effigy. Until, that is, The Dragon convinces the townspeople to substitute Roland's girlfriend...
In King's The Long Walk, not just one but 99 teenage boys will eventually meet their brutal deaths in the titular annual competition; Fridge Horror abounds here when you realize that the boys enter this contest eagerly and of their own free will, and thousands line the roadsides cheering the Long Walkers on and hoping to see one of them "get his ticket punched."
Inverted in the Discworld novel Soul Music: the Band with Rocks In is seemingly about to get eaten in the sinister town of Scrote, but avoids this fate by performing a rock concert.
Used straight in FaustEric, where Rincewind and Eric visit the Tezuman Empire (a Fantasy Counterpart Culture of the Aztecs), are first welcomed with a tribute, but then the trouble starts.
In Robert McCammon's short story, residents of a certain small town are all prosperous and successful. But a few days before Hallowe'en they receive a list from the Devil, requesting various treats from each house. A few of the treats are small pieces of their bodies, toes and the like. Refuse to provide them, and "He'll Come Knocking On Your Door".
The auto-da-fé in Candide is depicted as one of these.
Semi-subverted by the main festival in the latter story; their own "scary festival" is a frightened mimicry of the actual ritual.
Invoked in The Hunger Games, where the Capital forces the districts to treat two of their children being forced to fight to the death as a festival.
The novel Wringer by Jerry Spinelli is about a town who's big annual festival centers on the slaughter of pigeons. The protagonist is a young boy who has reached the age where he gets the privilege of becoming a "wringer," wringing the necks of pigeons who are wounded by shooters. He's less delighted about it than most boys his age.
The Global Gala in the Left Behind book Assassins was purposely arranged to take place in Jerusalem around the same time that the Two Witnesses in the Book of Revelation were supposed to end their prophesying, with Nicolae Carpathia making a public spectacle of killing the Two Witnesses by his own hand to enforce the law of the Global Community. (It also served as an opportunity for Nicolae to quietly dispose of Pontifex Maximus Peter Mathews through a private little Nasty Party held in his honor.) In fulfillment of what the Word of God says, the bodies of the Two Witnesses were left in the street unburied for 3 1/2 days while the people celebrated their demise, but then they were dramatically resurrected and brought up to heaven in a cloud. At the same time, an earthquake caused a tenth of Jerusalem to fall and seven thousand people have died.
Hartenham from The Beyonders is a permanent party, arranged as a Luxury Prison Suite for Maldor's most dangerous opponents. It contains every indulgence under the sun, and slowly kills or renders inert most of its occupants through addiction.
Live Action TV
In True Blood, the maenad Maryann tries to sacrifice Sam's heart to Dionysus, the Greek god of intoxication and drunken raves. The sacrifice ritual itself plays out like a white wedding/orgy combo.
In "A Man of Substance", an episode of the 2000 remake of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Randall goes to a small village where visitors are killed and cannibalised as part of a ritual to stop the village from being sucked into Hell.
In "Our Town", an episode of The X-Files, Mulder and Scully's investigation into a series of murders in a small town reveals that the residents engage in a cannibalistic ritual borrowed from primitive tribes.
And then they ate someone infected with CJD. Karma's a bitch.
"The Awakening": A small village's celebrations of an historic anniversary incorporate ritual prompted by the evil being sleeping beneath the village church. The Doctor's companion, Tegan, is offered the Guest of Honor's place - on top of a pile of kindling, tied to a stake.
In "The Daemons", the Third Doctor gets this role.
Midsomer Murders paid homage to The Wicker Man in an episode where The Vicar is burned alive inside a straw effigy during a village festival.
There's quite a lot of this in Midsomer. The wannabe-druid expy in The Fisher King, the (hilarious) Illuminati expies (I forget the episode), so on and so forth...
In Young Dracula, the Count threw a traditional Hunt Ball in which the Branaughs were invited to a party where all of the other guests were vampires. At midnight, the vampires would reveal themselves to the 'breathers' and hunt them down.
In the Torchwood episode "Countrycide", we meet a Village of Cannibals that seasonally prey on people passing by. The episode has been described as "The Hills Have Eyes with fat Welsh people"
In an episode of Angel, Doyle attends his ex-wife's fiance's bachelor party. He knows in advance that the man is a demon, but his family has assimilated into human society. Then he finds out that they have a custom whereby they eat the brains of the previous spouse to ensure a happy marriage.
In the Star Trek episode "Return of the Archons", Landru's mind-controlled followers have a regularly-scheduled Festival where they really blow off some steam.
The Smallville episode "Harvest" has Lois Lane invited to share dinner with a very nice family in a small town — which plans to sacrifice her in a ritual to insure a bountiful harvest.
Exalted features the Republic of Chaya, a country where this holds sway. The people of Chaya have what may be the closest thing to a truly representative democracy in the game, and there's a heavy emphasis on community and celebration. But when the fire-trees are in the bloom, the citizens go into an orgiastic fury and tear any outsiders to shreds.
Played for laughs in Kobolds Ate My Baby. Kobolds love parties and are gourmet cooks. King Torg (all hail King Torg) has decided to throw a party tomorrow. Kobolds are terrible planners and the tastiest meat for parties - human babies - is not in the pantry. The second tastiest thing in the world to a fresh baby is a fresh kobold. End result: the player characters, also known as the runtiest, weakest, and stupidest members of the tribe, better go round up dinner or become dinner. Hilarity Ensues.
They've become a bit more reasonable about it by the time of Return to Ravnica. The actually deadly parties cater to Rakdos himself (Currently oscillating between asleep and indulging in 24-hour diversions that rival if not surpass the Cult's behavior in the first block. Parties and shows that are less lethal (to their audience, anyway) are held more regularly, and provide the bulk of their income.
In the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the city of Neverwinter (in the already magically wrecked Forgotten Realms campaign setting) was half leveled by a volcano some thirty or so years before the in-game present. But good news! There are still great feasts, dances and other galas within Castle Never! Of course those are held by packs of Thayan-made ghouls who were trapped while exploring the ruined castle for their lich lords, and are now whiling away the hours by playing dress-up in the long-dead nobles' finery. They thank adventuring groups that dig them out about how you'd expect starving, half-intelligent zombies to...
This was the plot of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite Of Spring, at least the second part, which involved one of a circle of virgins being selected for Virgin Sacrifice to a pagan god. Though Stravinsky's music is more often heard as a concert piece than a ballet, the violence musically embodied in such sections as "Glorification of the Chosen One" is obvious.
The Midnight Ball will be this for you in Tanz der Vampire, if you happen to be a mortal, and thus on the menu. Alfred and Professor Abronisus are normal humans, so when they become trapped in the ballroom they steal vampire costumes and desperately try to dance along to escape detection, though they're always two steps behind. It works... for a while.
In Pippin, the spectacular grand finale promised by the Players turns out to be a glorified act of Self-Immolation. When Pippin refuses to go through with it despite their encouragement, they stop the show and appeal to the audience for someone to go on instead.
In Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth, one of the most frenetic and phobia inducing moments is when you're unarmed and asleep in your hotel room in a mysterious village and the townsfolk come in for a visit... tearing the wall of your room with an axe in order to kill/torture/sacrifice you.
The fete in Final Fantasy XII is just a show designed to draw the attention of the Insurgence.
The final mission in Rainbow Six: Raven Shield has a Grim Reaper-shaped parade float carrying a blister gas bomb about to enter the Festa Junina parade in Rio de Janeiro.
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn has the full moon festival in Belinsk. There will be music, dancing, food, brightly-colored furries, and any human prisoners will be subjected to death by boiling for entertainment. The one you actually attend gets even worse— the player characters rescue the doomed prisoners by activating a Pointless Doomsday Device, which decimates half the continent.
BioShock Infinite starts with Booker arriving in Columbia and attending a raffle, which he wins. The prize is first throw in a public stoning.
Carn Evil uses the trope as an underlying theme. Every event is meant to make you the main attraction. Whatever it is, though, the aim is to turn down the invitation.
An episode of South Park had this as the underlying motive for the entire country (world?) and its obsession with celebrity. It's gonna be a good harvest, indeed.
The lynchings in the Southeastern U.S. of the 19th-to-mid-20th centuries frequently had a celebratory, carnival atmosphere, attended by dozens of people. The often drawn-out tortures, commemorative photos and subsequent retrieval of "souvenirs" from the corpse had all the fervency of passionate social ritual.
In 1853, before the Civil War and only five years after its admission as a state to the union, Wisconsin abolished capital punishment, in part because of how the state's single execution, that of John McCaffary for drowning his wife, became a spontaneous celebratory spectacle.
Public executions in Europe were a popular day out for all the family, complete with a carnival atmosphere and large, poorly constructed viewing platforms to ensure that no one missed the fun. The tradition apparently traveled to America. Public hangings, particularly in the Wild West, could exhibit this air, especially if the condemned is/are one or more much-reviled members of the community.