Creepy Circus Music

There's something about circus music.

Done straight, it lets everyone within earshot know that they are in a world of fun for children of all ages! However, unless you're in an actual circus, then you are more likely to hear this kind of music slowed way down and played in a minor key. The effect is haunting, scary and maybe even sad and nostalgic. Often it will sound as if it's being played on an old, rusty calliope.

Definitely "Music To Run Away From Really Fast", if ever there was such a thing, as it usually means that there's a Monster Clown somewhere waiting to eat you. Or the circus is haunted. Or both. The other main use of this is as a cue that a character is losing their mind.

Compare Ironic Nursery Tune and Soundtrack Dissonance. See also Circus of Fear and Amusement Park of Doom.

Fun fact: The "standard" circus theme is called "Entry of the Gladiators" and was composed as a military march. (History does not record whether the soldiers were intended to emerge from a tiny little car.)

Examples:

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     Anime and Manga 
  • A creepy little number called "Yuuenchi" plays in Cowboy Bebop when Spike Spiegel battles Mad Pierrot at his abandoned amusement park.
  • The ending credits to Paranoia Agent.
  • The recurring number "Dream" from Mysterious Girlfriend X is definitely inspired by this.

    Fan Fic 

    Film 
  • The theme to Child's Play 2 has this.
  • The Coraline movie has an excellently creepy scene with the Other Kangaroo Rats. Bonus points for occurring in an actual circus of sorts..
  • The theme music from The Elephant Man uses this to heartbreaking effect.
  • "Waltz to the Death", by Danny Elfman, is The Joker's Leitmotif in Tim Burton's Batman. The theme actually sounds more like something from the 19th century (think Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite), but it's played on rather loud horns that remind one of a circus band; and while it's not very creepy in itself, the two scenes during which it's played certainly are (the Joker gleefully shooting a man several times and the Joker forcing the film's Damsel in Distress to dance with him - at gunpoint - atop Gotham City's cathedral).
  • There's a creepy calliope ditty called "To The Shock of Miss Louise" in The Lost Boys.
  • The Carousel Trap music in Saw VI.
  • The title theme to Puppet Master movies sounds like it's played on a well-meaning but thoroughly evil music box.
  • Opening theme to The Funhouse.
  • Unsurprisingly, the 2012 film The Devil's Carnival is loaded with this. Bonus points for the film taking place in Hell.
  • The 1999 version of The Haunting (1999) featured a rotating, mirrored room which played a sprightly circus-type song composed by veteran horror composer Jerry Goldsmith. While this was justified in-story by Hugh Crain having built and designed his mansion for children to play in, a review of the movie said it best (in paraphrase): "No horror movie can be complete without creepy circus music." As if the original tune isn't unsettling enough, Eleanor later visits the room in the middle of the night while having her requisite freakout, and the imbalanced spinning she suffers is augmented by a very deep, discordant bass line running in counterpoint to the calliope.
  • Logans Run uses something quite similar to this in the carousel sequences. Not exactly creepy circus music, but definitely demented circus music.
  • Pennywise the Dancing Clown's theme from the film of IT is more Soundtrack Dissonance, but even a happy carnival tune just feels creepy because of the association.
  • The Band's eponymous theme to The Last Waltz is a calliope-accompanied funhouse tune in, yep, waltz time. Instead of creepy, though, the effect is wistful and elegiac. And mighty damned pretty!
  • In A Streetcar Named Desire the Varsouvania Polka is an example of this, showing up every time Blanche loses her mind a little more.
  • The opening credits theme for Eyes Without a Face sounds like a demented circus tune.
  • Toy Story: "Strange Things Are Happening".

     Live-Action TV 

    Literature 

    Music 
  • Older than Television: "Alabama Song" (commonly but mistakenly thought of as "Whiskey Bar") from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, first performed in 1930. A wasted flapper and a derelict-looking man in a rumpled suit joylessly chant the nihilistic lyrics as they ride in the back of a clunky old pickup truck - and the discordant musical accompaniment is effectively sinister and disreputable in sound, describable only as "circus music being played in a junkyard."
  • The first two Mr. Bungle albums are chock full of this. It's horrifying
  • "Come See the Meatboy" by Calibretto.
  • Vocaloid:
    • "Dark Woods Circus" by Machigherita
    • "Circus Monster" by Luka, which features the slowed-down variety. The song itself is actually rather sad, and the circus music adds to that effect
  • "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" by The Beatles. Cirque du Soleil's LOVE takes this to its logical conclusion by making this song the centerpiece of a Circus of Fear, representing the controversies the group triggered in both the U.K. and the U.S. after Beatlemania's initial wave. As the scene climaxes, the music becomes a distressingly sinister combination of "Helter Skelter" and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)". AND TONIGHT, MR. KITE IS TOPPING THE BILL!!!!!!
  • Taking that standard "Entrance of the Gladiators" theme and making the bass notes chromatically rising and descending tritones makes the piece a lot more creepy, especially if someone does a still-legged clown impression along with it.
  • Creature Feature's "The Greatest Show Unearthed"
  • When Tom Waits isn't doing Creepy Blues, Creepy Bluegrass, or Creepy Jazz, it's usually this. Especially once he gets ahold of that calliope-organ of his. His Concept Album The Black Rider contains a lot of it, including an old carnival tune "sung" by William S. Burroughs.
  • Experiment 16 by Mentally Detached
  • Arc Attack's aptly-titled "Creepy Circus Song" (complete with creepy children laughing)
  • The Dark Cabaret act "Circus Contraption" is, yet again, made of this trope.
  • The Tiger Lillies use this trope quite often.
  • "Lions Roar" by The Hush Sound is a great example.
  • The Doors' "Light My Fire" from The Doors with Ray Manzarek's keyboard shrieking away for several minutes like some kind of infernal calliope. Robbie Krieger's "Oriental" flamenco guitar only makes the effect more eerie. Other examples from the Doors include "Strange Days", "You're Lost Little Girl", "Unhappy Girl", "People Are Strange", "Not To Touch The Earth", "The Unknown Soldier", "Spanish Caravan" (specifically the second half), "Five To One", and "L'America".
  • ''The Carny of Mr. Dark'' by Deathwatch Beetle Repairman.
  • Pink Floyd's "Poles Apart" contains a brief segment composed of this.
  • Many Years Ago by Alice Cooper.
  • Nox Arcana's Carnival of Lost Souls is an ALBUM of this stuff! Example.
  • The Eels song Trouble with Dreams.
  • The Barenaked Ladies' track "Tonight is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel" has some major clown-vibes, used to create a sense of eerie detachment from the events of the song. It's a different kind of creepy from the classic monster clown effect.
  • David Bowie's "After All" (from 1:56 - 2:18).
  • "Put A Straw Under Baby" by Brian Eno.
  • "Spinning In Daffodils" by Them Crooked Vultures has a very dark circus riff.
  • On "Random 2", a Gary Numan tribute album, somebody uses this to remake "Down in the Park". You know, that song about a combination jail/extermination camp that's also been covered by Marilyn Manson.
  • Nightwish's song Scaretale certainly counts, at least from about 4:10 onwards, while also appearing to homage Grim Grinning Ghosts.
  • The "Big Top" section of King Crimson's "Lizard" suite could qualify, closing the piece (and the album) with the sound of a circus riff slowly spinning out of control.
  • Nine Inch Nails - "Pilgrimage"
  • "Psycho Circus" by KISS opens with some very creepy circus music playing.
  • Bruce Springsteen has a little calliope figure at the beginning and end of "Magic" and some faint hurdy-gurdy in the bridge... while Bruce wanders through a Crappy Carnival. According to the Boss, people who think it's about the the Bush Administration are mostly correct.
  • Miracle Of Sound: The tune of Joker's Song is built on a carnival/circus theme, befitting the Monster Clown that's singing it.
  • Diablo Swing Orchestra has dabbled in this a couple times, as well as pretty much everything else.
  • Alice Cooper's The Last Temptation features Creepy Circus Music in the outro of it's first track, "Sideshow" complete with a creepy carnival barker.
  • Both Leo Sayer's and Three Dog Night's version "The Show Must Go On" features this prominently, although Three Dog Night's version features much slower circus music that flows with the rest of the song.
  • No Doubt's song Tragic Kingdom has a prominent carnival sound that gets faster and more chaotic by the end, until it explodes into a Big Rock Ending.

    Opera 
  • Alban Berg's Wozzeck — always a great source for horror music tropes — gestures towards this pretty strongly with the military parade music.

    Professional Wrestling 

    Video Games 

    Webcomics 
  • Homestuck:
    • "Midnight Calliope," which is appropriate for a Monster Clown murderous juggalo.
    • Harlequin, while a bit creepy, is the theme song for the nice Nannasprite.
    • The Carnival, a creepy-sounding remix of Harlequin that gets progressively faster and faster, is used in the 5x Showdown Combo page with great effect.

    Web Original 
  • Experiment 16 by ZekeySpaceyLizard
  • This rather disturbing parody of one of KFC's ads.
  • One of the case-files on the SCP Foundation website is SCP-823, an abandoned Amusement Park of Doom. One of the key indicators that bad things are about to go down is when creepy carnival music starts playing out of nowhere.

    Websites 

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • If you're at a circus show and you hear the band suddenly strike up "The Stars and Stripes Forever" and it's not the 4th of July, expect to be ushered outside as fast as possible. Circus tradition is that this music is played only in the event of a major life-threatening emergency during a show to signal the staff; it's nicknamed "The Disaster March".