"...she suddenly heard unexpected music. It filled the night air as if it had been only waiting for Meggie’s footsteps: strange music, a carnival mixture of bells, pipes and drums, both boisterous and sad. Meggie wouldn’t have been surprised to find a whole troupe of fairground entertainers waiting for her..."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. Instruments you might hear in this type of music include a pipe organ or calliope, a music box, and, less commonly, bells or a children's choir. 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.) Because the song is so recognizable, it is common to hear the familiar 10-note melody in creepy circus music.
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Anime and Manga
Film - Animated
- The Coraline movie has an excellently creepy scene with the Other Kangaroo Rats. Bonus points for occurring in an actual circus of sorts.
- Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker uses an offscreen music box to similar effect. We are talking about the perversion of a home created by two Monster Clowns after all.
- "You're Only Second Rate", the Villain Song from Aladdin: The Return of Jafar is a swingy Broadway-style song that contains some elements of this. For example, circus-themed imagery is used throughout the song, and when Jafar sings the line "You think your cat's a meanie, but your tiger's tame", you can hear the melody of "Entry of the Gladiators" in the background.
- "Jester" from Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return is a creepy circus song befitting the Villainous Harlequin who sings it.
- The first part of "Pink Elephants on Parade" from Dumbo is a circus march played in a minor key, and made even more frightening by the surrealism of the scene. When the singing starts ("Look out! Look out! Pink elephants on parade!") the brass and xylophone are replaced by a circus-esque organ.
Film - Live-Action
- The theme to Child's Play 2 has this.
- 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.
- Logan's 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.
- The title theme of Killer Klowns from Outer Space features the abovementioned "Entry of the Gladiators" as a metal guitar riff, to match with the tongue-in-cheek evil circus theme of the titular creatures.
- Shows up in a few Are You Afraid of the Dark? episodes. Namely in "The Tale of Laughing in the Dark" and "The Tale of the Dark Music."
- Sesame Street: This creepy segment, which also includes several horrifying close-ups of dolls with lifeless eyes.
- Doctor Who uses this to great effect in the Seventh Doctor story "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy". It's just similar enough to some well-known circus tunes to be off-putting, seems to come from nowhere inside the circus tent, plays during some of the most surreal and creepy scenes in the story, is used to drown out a young woman's screams, and is just catchy enough to stay in your head...
- American Horror Story: Freak Show, which takes place at a circus, uses a variation of the standard AHS opening theme that fits this trope to a T. Just listen.
- 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.
- "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!!!!!!
- Creature Feature's "The Greatest Show Unearthed"
- Unsurprisingly featured in Melanie Martinez's "Carousel".
- 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:
- 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.
- Brian Wilson/the Beach Boy's SMiLE has a linking piece between "Wind Chimes" and the ominous "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" with a creepy circus-y calliope.
- Assassins opens with a corny circus waltz arrangement of "Hail to the Chief" as the curtain rises on a shooting gallery of American presidents.
- The Creepy Docks music in BioShock.
- Super Mario 64, in the lower levels of the Boo level.
- The music in Chortlebot Challenge in Wario Land Shake It.
- The main menu music of Psychonauts and the final level, The Meat Circus.
- Although it isn't your standard circus tune, the creepy theme from the Banjo-Tooie level Witchyworld fits the mold.
- Epic Mickey:
- The Clock Tower's theme in the first game is a very dark version of "It's a Small World".
- The music that is emitted from the run down floats in Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two's Floatyard, creatively named "Floats" in the soundtrack, definitely fits this trope, though the area itself is on par with Mickeyjunk Mountain for being both Down in the Dumps and creepily nostalgic.
- Killing Floor has a circus-themed map dubbed "Abusement Park", with slowed-down or creepified renditions of "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze", "The Entertainer", and "Entry of the Gladiators" to accompany the survival horror.
- Blood uses this sort of music, titled Dark Carnival on the soundtrack, for its circus levels. The sounds of barkers and children throughout make it even creepier.
- From Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, the Circus Park night theme, Odd March— which is in turn a remix of the Speed Slider boss theme from Knuckles Chaotix. Both songs were created by Mariko Nanba, who also composed the "Circus Park" theme from Shadow the Hedgehog.
- Sonic the Hedgehog:
- The series also has Mystic Cave Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Carnival Night Zone from Sonic 3 & Knuckles, which both also use the prototypical circus music "Entrance of the Gladiators". Doesn't sound so creepy, until you get to that Guide Dang It part where many players were trapped until they Game-Overed.
- Sonic the Hedgehog 4 uses a circus-esque theme for its boss music. It's not exactly creepy, but it certainly sounds deranged.
- In Final Fantasy VI, Kefka's theme, a sorta circus/militaristic march mix, actually averts this trope. Instead, the creepiness comes in when you see what Kefka gleefully will do while his theme is playing... Suffice to say, you will come to associate Kefka's theme with very, very bad things. No surprise, then, that his theme is present throughout the entirety of the final boss theme "Dancing Mad," particularly the fourth movement.
- More or less played straight with Calobrena's intro theme in Final Fantasy IV.
- The Big Bad's Leitmotif in Ace Attorney Investigations 2.
- The Circus of Fear level in TimeSplitters 2 features an appropriately worrying circus theme.
- The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask:
- Silent Hill 3 has its own amusement park with creepy carnival music.
- The "Puzzles" room in Shivers has its own horrific music.
- The Makin' Magic expansion pack for The Sims has circus music as its musical theme, and it's also the spookiest expansion pack, though only at Defanged Horrors level.
- Gore's theme, "Madness Visitor" from Gore Screaming Show is this. Makes sense, considering what he is.
- One of the trainer encounter themes from Pokémon Gold and Silver; its version from the remakes HeartGold and SoulSilver sounds less circuslike though.
- Batman Doom has the "Scarecrow" track, playing on the House of Fear level.
- The Kingdom Of Endless Dreams from Deathsmiles IIX. It's the Extra Field theme, the most terrifying Christmas carnival ever.
- Left 4 Dead 2's Dark Carnival campaign is set almost entirely in a carnival, and the overlying style of the music matches it accordingly.
- Peanut Gallery Music while not exactly "creepy" It's just kinda weird.
- When powering up a Merry-Go-Round (and alerting a horde of zombies) to get through to the other side of the carousel, the song that it starts playing is stereotypical creepy carnival music that's very slow-paced and ominous-sounding. Makes you question how well it did back when the carnival was still actually in operation.
- Averted throughout the "Carny" stage of House Of The Dead Overkill, which instead uses the fun rockabilly number "One Night in Bayou". We do get a properly demented, carnival-flavored track during the boss fight, though.
- The Sims has circus music making up about half the soundtrack of the Makin' Magic expansion pack, which is the most spooky/gothic expansion and, as the title indicates, has a supernatural theme.
- In the 5.x release time frame, World of Warcraft added a carousel to the Darkmoon Faire. The happy little circus tune that plays while you're riding it is eerily reminiscent of something Danny Elfman would write.
- In Super Mario Kart, the "Ranked Out" jingle is a dark version of the first 10 notes from "Entry of the Gladiators".
- The music used in the level "Ambush Maneuver" of Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon is a creepy calliope waltz befitting the toy train set where the level takes place.
- Little Clown's battle music in Mr. Nutz
- Facade & Blade, Joka's battle theme from Door To Phantomile starts out with this type of music, but quickly switches to dark, techno-ish music. This is symbolic of Joka going from being incompetent and buffoonish to being a full-fledged Monster Clown.
- The boss theme for Leptio the Flower Clown from ''Lunatea's Veil]] also qualifies.
- Creepy Circus Music plays in Empire of Dreams in the cutscene before each boss battle, except for the Final Boss.
- CarnEvil contains quite a bit of this, although this is to be expected, considering the game's setting. Some good examples include Select Your Doom and Ludwig von Tökkentäkker's Big Top.
- In the beginning of the arcade game Ninja Clowns, there is a shot of the main character standing on a building at night, surveying the city just like Batman. During this shot, the background music is a slow, eerie version of "Entry of the Gladiators"
- Considering that the main character is a circus performer and the Big Bad is a Monster Clown, it should come across as no surprise that Aero the Acro-Bat contains some examples of this. For example, see Circus 2 and the boss theme (the latter of which is a creepy-circus-themed remix of Flight of the Bumblebee.)
- Big Top Bop, the first boss theme from Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is an epic metal song that uses some very circusy sounding instruments in some parts. Although the effect is more empowering than creepy, it's still played in a minor key.
- Mary's Leitmotif in Ib is a sad-sounding waltz played on a music box, giving it this sound. One YouTube user made a remix that makes it sound even more like circus music.
- "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.
- 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.
- Creepy Circus Music serves as the Leitmotif of The Thrilling Adventure Hour villain Nightmares the Clown whenever he appears. It's immediately followed by Sadie Doyle delightedly shouting "Clown!"
- The Joker's Leitmotif from The Batman is of this type.
- The Joker's theme from Batman: The Animated Series (written by Shirley Walker, longtime collaborator with Danny Elfman in the style of the Burton film), which was incorporated into several different music pieces that involved him. The Joker even whistles it to himself at one point.
- The theme from The Magic Roundabout has a certain haunting aspect, noted by Bill Bailey in one of his stand-up routines in which he "re-inserts" the "lost middle eight" which features Zebedee in a maniacal rant.
- Mighty Max: Shows up in the beginning of the "Clown Without Pity" episode.
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
- The theme for the Courage the Cowardly Dog episode "The Great Fusilli" is a fine example.
- Gargamel's Ghoulliope, which shows up at Laconia and Woody's wedding in The Smurfs cartoon special "Smurfily Ever After".
- The Powerpuff Girls episode "Mime for a Change" makes great use of this when Rainbow the Clown loses his color and is turning all of Townsville grey and silent.
- The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police: In the episode "The Friend For Life", this type of music is heard multiple times. The first time it's heard is a scene where Sam and Max are at a creepy amusement park at night, standing in front of a funhouse. All of a sudden, the funhouse's lights turn on, the ride comes to life, and the ominous music begins playing.
- The Simpsons - their house is getting gassed for bugs with a big striped tent covering it. Nelson and his bully pals think it's a circus and sneak in - then stagger out slurring the standard circus theme music.
- Parodied in the Family Guy episode "Stewie Loves Lois", in which Peter, who thinks he's been raped by Dr. Hartman after simply being given a prostate exam, embellishes his recollection of the exam in question to include the doctor laughing in a pitched-down voice and riding a carousel with what sounds like "Somewhere, My Love" playing in the background.
- The Adventures of Figaro Pho:
- Used throughout the "Coulrophobia" episode, especially in scenes where the Monster Clown is pulling his cruel pranks.
- In the episode "Myth or Pho", Figaro, dressed up as a monster, has been captured by a nature photographer who puts Figaro on display, like a circus attraction, while creepy circus music plays in the background.
- In League of Super Evil, this type of music serves as the Leitmotif for the Monster Clown robot Chuckles.
- 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".