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Circus of Fear

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C'mon, it'll be fun! The Cult of Rakdos is a scream!

"I mean, really, what kind of a demonically evil scheme involves rollercoasters and cotton candy anyway?"
Murray the Demonic Skull, Escape from Monkey Island

Overnight, the circus came to town. But something's wrong — very wrong. The ringmaster is abusing the animals and performers, and the circus music, which should be cheerful, seems menacing. The attractions (especially The Freakshow) seem off, the cotton candy is a sickly shade of green, the knife thrower doesn't miss, and the clowns... well, the less said about the clowns the better.

And people are disappearing, either consumed by or turned into the circus denizens.

This trope is the brother to The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday, and often used in context with freaks, providing instances of either Red Right Hand or The Grotesque.

A common variation on the theme is a killer amusement park, with homicidal costumed mascots and a fun house that's anything but. If it's in a video game, expect a roller coaster that acts an awful lot like a mine cart.

Something Wicked This Way Comes, a novella written by Ray Bradbury and published in 1962 and turned into a movie in 1983, is a big inspiration for this trope, although the 1919 movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is probably the Trope Maker.

Compare with:

  • The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday: Like the Circus, the Little Shop is a liminal space between the fantastic and the mundane. But the Little Shop isn't expected to move around, and is always magical: the Circus of Fear need not be magical, though it usually is.
  • Amusement Park of Doom: If the Circus were to permanently settle down somewhere, it would be an Amusement Park. Note that you generally must choose to visit the Park, whereas the Circus comes to you.
  • Circus Episode: The regular Circus shows up in an unrelated show; scary occurrences are optional.
  • Circus of Magic: A magical circus. May overlap with this trope.
  • Menagerie of Misery: At least the animal abuse part.

Contrast with:

  • Crappy Carnival: You won't have fun here either, but the reason is mundane incompetence, not eerie menace.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Black Butler has a whole arc in the manga where Ciel and Sebastian join Noah's Circus to investigate the whereabouts of children that have gone missing. Needless to say, what starts off as your average circus with jugglers, tightrope walkers, and acrobats turns much darker as we learn about the secrets behind it.
  • Cat Soup has one, featuring a woman getting dismembered and a giant bird that's swallowed clouds (that ends up causing a flood).
  • Chargeman Ken!: As the episode's title implies, the circus in "The Devil's Circus" is not a good one. It's actually led by Jurals who disguise themselves as circus performers to kill Ken. At one point, they even unleash the lions upon the audience!
  • A short manga by Junji Ito, Circus ga Kita has a travelling circus where performers die one by one during the show. It doesn't matter that the circus loses performers or that the audience witness these horrors, since every single spectator will become part of it.
  • Copernicus Breathing may or may not fit neatly into this trope. Although it does not contain any supernatural elements, le Cirque de Soir is pretty gritty and the way it is visually portrayed is like a horrifying acid trip for a vast majority of the time and not to mention, the ringmaster pimps out several of the performers.
  • In the Cowboy Bebop episode "Pierrot le Fou", Spike faces off against Mad Pierrot in a creepy circus inspired by Batman: The Animated Series. It's also called Space Land and can be seen as a mockery of Bebop itself.
  • Near the end of the ultra- squick horror manga Gyo, the protagonist visits a circus where all the acts are composed of or powered by victims of the "death stench" gas-producing virus that has ravaged Japan.
  • Buggy the Clown's pirate crew from One Piece.
  • There were hints of something called a "Nightmare Circus" sub-arc within the Mahorafest arc of Negima! Magister Negi Magi. Sadly, it was cancelled due to the main story taking up much more time than expected.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica: While most Witches hide in their barriers when they strike, Walpurgisnacht doesn't need to, likely due to her sheer power. As such, she and her familiars travel the world like a delirious circus troupe. Various trained animals pull Walpurgisnacht using strings of circus flags, and a personal army of clowns usually dance around the stage-setting Witch herself, who doubles as both the fire-breather and the apparent ringleader.
  • The titular Robot Carnival is one of these. It used to be a normal circus, but years of wear turned it into this and it turns the citizens of the towns it visits into its new performers. Or just makes them explode.
  • The Dead Moon Circus of Sailor Moon. If the name hasn't clued you in, the henchmen are all dressed like circus performers, and the Monsters of the Week (called Lemures) are themed after circus acts, props and animals.
  • The third opening of (Goku) Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei.
  • In Tite Kubo's short lived Zombie Powder, Balmunk has a Circus of Pain/Fear that just springs up from the ground.

    Comic Books 
  • And Then Emily Was Gone has the Circus of the Night, led by Billy Styx.
  • The DCU:
    • The Joker likes doing variations of this in the various Batman incarnations. Most famously, he buys an Amusement Park of Doom in The Killing Joke and crews it with circus freaks, using it to attempt to drive Commissioner Gordon insane by showing him naked pictures he'd taken of Gordon's daughter after he shot her through the spine. And there was a song.
    • Also from Batman, in Batman and Robin (2009), the first arc features an evil circus troupe led by the Nightmare Fuel-inducing Professor Pyg. In the second issue, the new Robin visits the actual circus, and more Nightmare Fuel starts when he is attacked by Professor Pyg's masked henchmen. Pyg's major underlings all resemble sideshow freaks, as well, including a grossly overweight bearded lady in a tutu and a human flame act who can burn others but not himself.
    • Brother Power the Geek was once imprisoned as a circus freak at the villanious Psychedelic Circus.
    • An early arc of Starman (DC Comics) features this type of circus. The "freaks" themselves are mostly nice people, but they are controlled by the ringmaster and his evil lieutenant. Because this is Starman, the lieutenant comes back during the invasion of Opal City.
  • The Goon had in one issue, Brigadoon's Dreamland Carnival, operated and patronized entirely by deformed Circus Freaks, who killed normal people in deadly carnival games, in revenge for the mistreatment they suffered in their lives. Averted, however, in the Goon's own happy childhood working in a traveling circus.
  • A young Hellboy ran off one day and found one of these. It was run by one "A.T. Roth".
  • Hoax Hunters has a traveling circus as a front for a murderous cult. It used to just be a regular circus, until the ringleader met an Eldritch Abomination and went insane. Most people who come in contact with it never suspect there's anything wrong — and also probably think that goat guy is wearing a costume.
  • The second arc in the first volume of I Hunt Monsters has the heroes dealing with a circus run by werewolves.
  • The graphic novel The Last Temptation had one. It was written by Neil Gaiman and Alice Cooper.
  • Marvel Universe:
    • Arcade's deadly amusement park, Murderworld, also has elements of the Circus of Fear, and so far hasn't fallen to Villain Decay. Probably because he has so many Murderworlds.
    • The Awesome Slapstick got his start trying to save his classmates from Evil Clowns from Dimension X who were using a circus to kidnap people and turn them mediocre. No, really. Everything got righteously smashed up.
    • The Circus of Crime is exactly what it sounds like, a circus troupe as a Gang of Hats. It consists of guys like Bruto the Strongman, Princess Python, the Human Cannonball, the Great Gambonnos, the Clown, Live Wire, and the variously threatening-and-not so much Ringmaster, whose hypnotic hat is often the key to his schemes. Generally less overtly creepy and homicidal than other examples of this trope, the Circus of Crime is mostly in it for the money.
    • Darkhawk has an origin involving witnessing his father take a bribe inside a creepy, abandoned carnival and stumbling upon the mysterious amulet that would eventually give him his powers.
    • Kid Colt twice fought groups known as the 'Circus of Crime'. In issue #106, he's forced to join a small travelling circus that visits small towns and uses their circus skills to rob them. In issue #127, Colt's Arch-Enemy Iron Mask organizes a Legion of Doom consisting of several other foes of Kid Colt (Bennington Brown, Dr. Danger, and the Fat Man) who pose as circus performers to rob the inauguration ball of the new governor of Arizona.
    • In a New Mutants flashback, the team finds a circus run by Skrulls who are kidnapping humans and shrinking them. As expected, the New Mutants trash the place, including various structures that didn't need it.
    • In Spider-Man Noir, Norman "The Goblin" Osborn recruited his inner circle from the circus freak show. The Vulture was a geek who had become more animal than man, Kraven was an animal tamer, the Chameleon had the uncanny ability to alter his facial features, Ox was a strongman, Montana did rope tricks, and Fancy Dan was a promoter. As it turns out, Norman himself was a refugee from the same freak-show, where he had been put on display since childhood as "the Goblin" because of his thick, green, scaly skin. He hides it under a latex mask nowadays.
    • Wolverine and the X-Men (Marvel Comics) features Murder Circus, home to a witch who worshipped longtime X-Men villain Azazel and stole the souls of children... and that was before it was taken over by none other than the Frankenstein Monster, who has gone full-on Knight Templar and travels the country looking for relatives of his creator to kill. Creepy attractions feature zombie clowns and a sideshow made of brainwashed X-Men.
  • The Real Ghostbusters fought a ghost-circus in their comic-book incarnation. The zombie elephants were somewhat creepy.
  • Resident Evil: Fire and Ice opens with the main characters fighting a zombified circus troupe, which includes a car filled with zombie clowns.

    Fan Works 
  • Akiko's horrific past as a Magical Girl in the backstory of the Battle Fantasia Project involved three years fighting against the Carnival of Blood, who want you to join them forever, in addition to the four years fighting her current enemy, the Nightmare Factory. It's primarily glossed over if mentioned at all, because going into specifics would subject the poor girl to horrors that would break most Magical Girls, horrors to which not even Puella Magi Madoka Magica can compare.
  • In Between My Brother and Me: Mors Omnibus, Yvonne and Yusho have to duel Yuya and Zarc in an Action Field called "Carnival of Lost Souls" while they all songs like "The Greatest Show Unearthed" (which itself is a reference to Something Wicked This Way Comes) and "The Circus Comes To Town" (the opening to Big Top Scooby-Doo!). Yuya's deck for this duel is known as "Nightmare Mirror Circus" which contain Evil Counterpart versions of people (Shuzo, Yoko and Yusho), pets (En and Core) and duel monsters (Odd-Eyes Pendulum Dragon) with a dark circus aesthetic.
  • A.A. Pessimal's Discworld fic Clowning Is A Serious Business deals with Vetinari's devious plan to force change and modernity on the Guild of Fools - specifically, by coercing it to follow the lead of the Thieves and the Assassins by taking its first girl students. And then treating them decently when they arrive. A group of female Thieves and Assassins are hence sent to the Fools as a sort of Mature Students' Class. They adapt their own trade skills into a genuinely new and innovative circus performance which is truly memorable for all who witness it - just to prove the point, practically, that women can be the equal of men. Things are ratcheted up when an attempt is made to kill up to three high-wire acrobats. The woman who has introduced lion-taming as a brand new circus discipline has firm ideas about this. Mayhem ensues. Leading to a Civil War in the world of clowning - a Clown Army marches out of Überwald.
  • In Equestria Divided we have the Cult of Laughter which combines the worst traits of necromancy, cosmic horror and this trope, and it's run by a Monster from Beyond the Veil Pinkie Pie
  • The setting for the Fairy Tail fanfic Fear is a circus that goes from town to town offering two nights of entertainment. The first nights always go swell for the townsfolk but come the second night things don't go well. They are made to see their worst fears as the circus crew ransack their towns. Natsu and Lucy take up a request to stop them, despite Lucy having a fear of clowns, something that a circus is going to have. When they reach the town that the circus is currently at they watch the first night's show and decide to intercept the second night's. They get caught and are made to see their fears. Although Lucy's fear of clowns does come up her true fear is Natsu dying. While Natsu's fear is killing his guildmates, Lucy in particular. They are both forced to watch each other go through their fears by their captors. They break free and make sure the circus wizards pay for everything they did.
  • In the Horseshoes and Hand Grenades sidestory Month of Sundays, Damballa transforms the Narumi Detective Agency into this and the main attractions just happen to be the fighting of Creepy Doll versions of three different Kamen Riders.
  • In Misunderstandings, the very human Peter Collins is captured by one of these, run by an evil unicorn named named Big Top. When he escapes, other ponies are concerned that this "alien" might be violent because of his poor treatment and both sides are overly cautious towards one another, especially due to a language barrier separating the two.

    Films — Animation 
  • Pinocchio: The Coachman locks about half the boys-turned-donkeys in crates that appear to be heading for a circus (the others are heading for the salt mines).
  • Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night: A circus mysteriously appears from the ground in the middle of the night, hinted to be a creation by Sat-er, "the Emperor of the Night" themselves. Pinocchio in this version of the classic tale also takes a visit to this carnival, where after seeing Twinkle, a puppet belonging to the puppetmaster, Puppetino, who called her "The most beautiful puppet in the world", he becomes love-struck by her, loses his judgement and directly falls into Puppetino's scheme, being trapped in an Involuntary Dance as he turns poor Pinocchio right back into a puppet in a very disturbing sequence. Thankfully, the Blue Fairy does manage to turn him back into a real boy.
  • We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story: The Big Bad runs a literal Circus of Fear. Everything in it is geared towards horror. Except for the clown, ironically enough.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and its "Flesh Fair": a traveling circus-like event where obsolete Mecha are destroyed before jeering crowds who hate Mecha, believing them to be both dangerous and a cause of human unemployment.
  • Air Bud: The villains of the second movie are two sinister (albeit bumbling) Russians who own a run-down circus staffed solely by themselves and who aren't afraid to kidnap animal attractions.
  • Batman
    • The film Batman Returns had the Penguin secretly running the Red Triangle Circus Gang, a gang of crooks who, like him, were former circus performers. It is hinted that they abducted children when they were a legit circus, likely the reason they shut down.
    • Two-Face's goons dressed up as two-sided clowns when they attacked the circus in Batman Forever.
    • Oddly enough, this has been mostly averted with The Joker in his most recent live action outings—though he does come close in Batman (1989).
  • The 1968 British horror film Berserk starring Joan Crawford and Michael Gough is set in a circus where there are a series of gruesome and unexplained murders.
  • The movie version of The Elephant Man involves the title character's escape from one of these. The movie was directed by David Lynch, who must have jumped at the chance to try his hand at this trope.
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is probably the Trope Maker. Caligari sets up a weird carnival show with his cabinet, which contains a semi-comatose sleepwalker who can, apparently, tell your fortune from his dreams. By night, the sleepwalker sneaks out into town to murder his master's enemies. The whole movie is dripping with a surreal, highly-stylized atmosphere.
  • Christopher Lee starred in a 1966 film actually titled Circus of Fear, where a circus becomes the location for stolen loot and murder..
  • In Circus of Horrors, a plastic surgeon must beat a hasty retreat to France when one of his patients has ghastly problems with her surgery. Once there, he operates on a circus owner's daughter, deformed by bombs from the war. Later he becomes the owner of the circus, and continues transforming disfigured women into the beautiful stars of his show. The police and a nosy reporter (as well as Scotland Yard) become interested when the women who want out of the circus begin dying in freak accidents, and they begin suspecting the good doctor is responsible.
  • The Devil's Carnival is about a carnival run by... guess.
  • In The Freakmaker, Lynch runs a travelling carnival and freak show that he rules through fear and a fist of iron. He uses the freak show as a means of disposing of the experiments of Prof. Nolter that have gone wrong. The actual freaks who work for him are genuinely nice people, however, who only stay because they are afraid of Lynch and have nowhere else to go.
  • The movie Freaks both used and defied this trope. The freaks are all loving and caring people, the clowns are good-natured and charming (although one of them has a hilarious speech-impediment), and the animal trainer is frigging gorgeous. There's a bit of black comedy involving a pair of conjoined twins, one of who is getting married, and the soundtrack is slightly creepy, but that's about it. Unless you get them angry, as the evil female trapeze artist and misogynistic strong man do. Do NOT get the freaks angry.
  • The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, often considered one of the worst movies of all time, is set in a carnival where patrons are transformed into zombies. The film actually features surprisingly few zombies and much, much, MUCH more bad singing than would be expected.
  • After the bus crash in Jack the Reaper, the teens find themselves next to a carnival in the middle of the desert. When they get there, all of the rides are lit up but the carnival is deserted.
  • The monsters in Killer Klowns from Outer Space are aliens that look like monster clowns and come to Earth on a spaceship that looks like a circus tent.
  • Downplayed in Madeline. The circus appears to be pleasant, but the main performance is controlled by Russian gangsters posing as clowns who wish to kidnap Pepito, the son of the Spanish Ambassador to France for ransom. They do so by bringing the Ambassador and his wife to the stage, distracting them as the mobster posing as a tutor takes the boy away under the pretense of getting a balloon.
  • In the James Bond film Octopussy, the titular female lead uses a circus as a cover for her criminal activities as well as using circus acrobats and aerialists to commit crimes for her, while a renegade Soviet general plants a nuke in her circus. Not necessarily evil, but initially misguided.
  • In Ring of Fear, The Clyde Beatty Circus seems jinxed, falling victim again and again to apparent accidents which are actually the acts of a murderous saboteur.
  • Thir13en Ghosts has two ghosts, the Great Child and Dire Mother, that was in at least one of these. Specifically the Tall Man raped the mother and she gave birth to her son. They left (the stories are a little hard to follow) and were treated badly because of her son's disability, which was largely fueled by her being an extremely overprotective parent. They went to Jimbo's circus and conditions were so bad, that when she was kidnapped one night as a cruel prank, her mentally handicapped son destroyed the circus in search of his mom and axed the other freaks for killing her. The bodies were displayed for everyone to see and a mob later torn the Great Child apart, despite him being two years old in the head.
    • Similarly, the 1960 William Castle original, 13 Ghosts, has two ghosts, The Tamer and The Lion, who would fit the theme: The Tamer seems to have lost his head in a lion-taming act gone wrong, an event reenacted by these ghosts in one of their scenes.
  • No prizes for guessing what the Hammer horror film Vampire Circus is about.
  • The movie Waxwork is about a group of teenagers coming across an evil wax museum.


  • There's a G-rated version in the children's picture book The Amazing Spider-Man: The Big Top Mystery. To be sure, the circus in itself isn't scary, but it becomes this way once Spidey learns that he has to stop a saboteur from causing deadly "accidents" for the performers and spectators. Among the perils are a panicky elephant, a crazed lion, and a murderous clown who had "arranged" all the accidents and whom Spider-Man had rescued from the aforementioned lion earlier in the story. After he is finally caught, arrested, and questioned, the clown admits that he wanted to prevent the owner from selling the circus so he wouldn't lose his job.
  • Jean-Claude, from the Anita Blake series, owns and runs a fully functioning vampire circus, clowns with fangs and all.
  • The Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel, 'Circus Of Souls'. She figures it out soon enough, but is then zapped by the brain-altering magics of the circus.
  • The game of Caraval takes place at night, giving it a bit of a spooky, mysterious atmosphere. Participants can never really be sure whom to trust, or whether anything that happens is real or an illusion. Some people have even gone mad or died while playing the game.
  • The Circus of Doctor Lao, the one novel by Charles G. Finney. One amazing novel.
  • Circus of the Dead, a short e-book by Seth Blackburn, is about a circus that features a real zombie as its main attraction. As is expected, things don't end well.
  • The main antagonists in Devil's Cape are the Cirque d'Obscurite, a group of carnies who developed superpowers based on their talents when they were exposed to the death of a superhero and murdered first one hero, then the rest of his team. They're led by the Behemoth, formerly part of the freakshow, but also include Hector Hell, Kraken, Werewolf, Osprey, and Gork.
  • Not a circus, but an amusement park - Full Tilt by Neil Shusterman. Good god, Full Tilt.
  • Averted/inverted in Iain Lawrence's Ghost Boy. The main character discovers that the freaks are kind and good-natured, but they still unsettle him a little, and the non-freaks are much better at being charming.
  • Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World subverts this by having a circus help and support the good guys.
  • In several Incarnations of Immortality books, ghosts run an ethereal amusement park, where the ghosts try, and often succeed, in scaring the visitors. Amusingly, people kissing seems to scare the ghosts, in return. However, the rest of the amusement park is typical, if ghostly, fare such as a smoke ring toss.
  • The Manual of Detection has Caligari's Travels-No-More Carnival, which is this trope in spades.
  • Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus doesn't feature an evil circus per se, but some scary and strange crap definitely goes down.
  • A Nightmare on Clown Street has an interesting example. At first it seems like the circus itself is up to no good, when in reality the clowns are generally good guys and the real evil is a man named The Frightener who all bad clowns are sent to as punishement.
  • The Fun Fair, Nightside's first amusement park ended up this way. It's considered a very bad place (and this is Nightside we're talking about) and requires services of major exorcists just to keep it quiet. The protagonist even comments on the nerve and bravery of someone who graffittied the front gate sign.
  • The Pilo Family Circus. An extradimensional travelling circus of madmen, magicians, and monsters, where the employees are paid in bags of management-controlled wishing powder made from the crystalised remains of human souls- extracted from the audience. Oh, and the managers have a nasty habit of causing global chaos on Earth via the Fortune Teller and the Clown division, on behalf of a race of reptilian demigods imprisoned beneath the showgrounds.
  • Count Otto Black, a Running Gag recurring villain in Robert Rankin's insane versions of novels, is often seen running a circus.
  • The setting for the Ravenloft novel Carnival of Fear.
  • Redwall's Slagar the Cruel runs a traveling show which seems perfectly benign (except that all the performers are weasels and stoats). The show is used to distract the good guys while a performer drugs their drinks and Slagar himself hypnotizes them, and when they wake up the "show" has vanished, taking their children with it.
  • The Peabody-Ozymandias Traveling Circus & Oddity Emporium of the eponymous novella in the Repairman Jack universe by F. Paul Wilson serves as this. Peabody is more or less a regular owner of a circus, but Ozymandias's freaks bear an otherworldly taint.
  • Subverted in The Saga of Darren Shan, where the "Cirque Du Freak", though intended to be nightmarish and slightly horrifying (and potentially dangerous), actually provides a warning beforehand of what it will be like, and gives patrons an opportunity to leave. If any are injured, the show is halted until they are fixed up. Also, the "freaks" are rather friendly and personable people, and the Circusmaster, Mr. Tall, actually runs the cirque as a means of providing people with strange abilities with shelter, family, the opportunity to travel, and a circumstance where their unique abilities can inspire wonder rather than fear.
    • The Cirque is a beacon of home and safety for the main characters to the point where it even becomes something of a sanctuary from the vampire wars of the later books - and when it is invaded, that is the clearest of signs that we've reached a point of no return.
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Carnivorous Carnival has the Calligari Carnival where its freaks will be fed to hungry lions to increase audience interest.
  • Serenity Falls from James A. Moore is a horror trilogy about the titular cursed town. After a number of horrific supernatural events, it climaxes with the sinister necromantic Circus of the Fantastic coming to Serenity Falls for revenge.
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes. Its carnival is strongly implied to thrive on fear and unhappiness.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • According to the short story "A Boy and His Monster" in Tales from Jabba's Palace, Malakili the Rancor Keeper was previously employed by the Circus Horrificus, where Hutts paid to see weird creatures get tortured to death.
  • Inverted in The Traveling Triple-C Incorporeal Circus, when the main characters, one of whom is a mime, put on a circus show to calm some actual monsters.
  • The Theater des Vampires in The Vampire Chronicles, who are vampires hiding in plain sight. They manage to be both scary and complete jackasses at the same time. They act out vampires killing humans on stage while the human audience watches in oblivious entertainment, and sometimes even satirically offer themselves in place of the victim they don't believe is a victim.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Ace Lightning's appropriately named Carnival of Doom. The one seen in the actual show would be pretty innocuous if not for all the digital supervillains who happen to live there, though.
  • American Horror Story: Freak Show ran on this trope: some of the usual suspects include a freak show full of dark secrets, killer clowns, sadistic side-show managers, and the like.
  • Doctor Who:
    • In "Terror of the Autons", the Master takes over Rossini's Circus with a mixture of hypnotism and threats and forces the staff to act as his mooks. A downplayed example, as there is no actual circus performance in the story.
    • Subverted in "Carnival of Monsters", with the showman Vorg portrayed as ignorant of the horrors he's leading.
    • There was an unmade script for a Sixth Doctor story called "The Nightmare Fair", later released as a novel, then an audio play (unofficial) and then an audio drama (official). The circus in question belongs to an old enemy, the extra-dimensional Humanoid Abomination known as the Celestial Toymaker.
    • "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy" featured the Psychic Circus. Initially a genuine circus staffed by kindly hippies, it was corrupted by a trio of Eldritch Abominations, the Gods of Ragnarok, who forced the performers to lure innocent people to take part in a "talent contest", and then to torture and kill them for their entertainment.
    • The Sarah Jane Adventures series 2 had Spellman's Magical Museum of the Circus in "The Day of the Clown".
    • Torchwood series 2 had the Night Travellers in "From Out of the Rain".
  • Dumbo's Circus, a popular puppet show on the Disney Channel in the 1980s, had a Halloween Episode whose climax was the musical number "The Day the Spooky Circus Came to Town" (with a bass line, believe it or not, filched straight from Michael Jackson's Thriller). Somewhat ironically, the Aesop of the episode was to teach kids to not be afraid of Halloween (or circuses, for that matter).
  • An episode of Get Smart involves Max tracking down a murderer and jewel thief in a circus. Turns out most of the circus members are part of the crime ring.
  • In season three of Gotham, Jerome Valeska, a captain ersatz of the Joker who was actually raised in a circus, uses his followers to take over the carnival grounds in Gotham. He dresses as the ringmaster of a circus while his followers dress in clown-themed clothing, and they kidnap normal citizens of Gotham so they can kill and torture them by making them participate in deadly carnival games for their own amusement. Like the version of the Joker in The Dark Knight, Jerome is a straw nihilist who believes that everyone is just as terrible of a person as he is deep down, and he actually inspires some of his followers to turn on their neighbors and family members during this carnival.
  • Heroes headed in this direction in their final season. The season opened with the role of primary antagonists falling on a group of carnies, led by a man named Samuel who injected ink into people and manipulated it inside their bodies along with creating earthquakes and manipulating earth. In the end it turns out this is a subverted trope as the carnival was a protected home for people with powers where they could openly be themselves. Most of the carnies aren't really evil, just misguided by Samuel. He was manipulating them to give him more power. The carnies were just looking for an safe haven to openly use their abilities and earn a living.
  • Papa Lazarou's circus in The League of Gentlemen might qualify as a subversion. While Papa Lazarou's appearance is pure Nightmare Fuel and he spends all his spare time kidnapping women ("You're my wife now!") Royston Vasey is already so full of freaks that the circus soon flees in terror, as the town is too weird even for them.
  • An episode of Mutant X dealt with a travelling circus led by a man whose power was to trap people inside funhouse mirrors.
  • The short lived series She-Wolf of London (aka Love & Curses) featured an episode during it's first season, Big Top She-Wolf, that dealt with a demonic circus.
  • The Star Trek: Voyager episode "The Thaw" has a circus run by an anthropomorphic manifestation of fear (depicted as a Monster Clown, naturally).

  • The video for "I Stay Away" by Alice in Chains, made even creepier by the use of somewhat grotesque puppets. The song doesn't really have much to do with it.
  • The music video to Animal Alpha's "Bundy" is set in a creepy circus to go with its Murder Ballad theme.
  • Battle Beast: The titular circus from "Circus of Doom" is frightening at first glance, but ultimately the biggest victims are the performers.
    The lions are hungry
    And filled with rage
    Afraid and angry
    Locked in a cage
  • The aptly named Dark Cabaret group The Carnival are centered around this.
  • This is kind of the whole schtick of Seattle-based group Circus Contraption, especially during their "Grand American Traveling Dime Museum" show.
  • 'Circus metal' is slowly becoming its own sub-genre for a combination of circus music (or more generally dark cabaret) and metal. Good examples of this are Stolen Babies and Unexpect.
  • Creature Feature's "The Greatest Show Unearthed" and its sequel "The Greatest Show Unearthed Returns" is about a travelling carnival of fantasy and terror, where your every wish can come true (for a deadly price) and the sights will drive you to insanity.
    Come inside, for the ride,
    Your deepest, darkest fear!
    The best night, of your life,
    You're never leaving here!
    The unknown, the unseen,
    Is what you're gonna find!
    Witness this, witness that,
    Until you lose your mind!
  • The album cover of Strange Days by The Doors features some freaky note  circus people too.
  • Circus of Sour by Donovan doesn't sound like it's about a particularly nice circus.
  • Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" from Highway 61 Revisited if the lyrics are taken literally, takes place at least partially in a Circus Of Fear.
  • Emerson, Lake & Palmer: The second half of the first impression of "Karn Evil 9" describes a number of bizarre acts and exhibits in the sideshow of a dystopian future circus, including "supersonic fighting cocks", a display of severed bishops' heads, "a real blade of grass" kept in a glass case, a Vaseline-covered "Gypsy Queen" who will "perform on guillotine", and more.
    Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends
    We're so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside
  • The titular Evelyn Evelyn Conjoined Twins spent their teenage years a part of a freak show act. It was better than their previous place, though that's not saying much as they used to be pimped out to people. It's implied they were sexually abused by the clowns, the elephants were fed so poorly that they died, and the twins were overworked and beaten. The only good thing about their experience at the circus was that they learned how to play the ukulele, which helped them get interested in a music career.
  • A lot of Hannah Fury's music evokes feelings of this, but "Carnival Justice (The Gloves Come Off)" especially makes use of some creepy carnival imagery.
  • "Circus of Death," from The Human League's first album Reproductions, tells the story of a singularly destructive circus. The song is also, oddly enough, a Hawaii Five-O Fanfic of sorts.
  • The Insane Clown Posse's appearance and Dark Carnival mythos is based on this trope. Many of their songs, including "Murder Go Round", "House of Mirrors", "Halls of Illusion" and "Tilt-a-Whirl" relate to Circus, or rather, Carnival of Fear-based themes.
  • "Cirkus" by King Crimson is a rather mind screwy version.
  • The cover art, title track and its music video, and associated merchandise (comic books, action figures and a PC game) of the 1998 KISS album Psycho Circus make use of this concept.
  • Seanan McGuire's song "The Poisonous Circus" is about a circus for Nightmare Fetishists. Some of the lyrics are on the quotes page for this trope.
  • Miracle of Sound's song "Call of Duty Circus" portrays Call of Duty as one of these.
    Roll up and see the terrifying ripper with his blade!
    His magic knife will end your life
    Of one-hit-kills it's made
  • The Concept Album The New World's Fair by Michael Moorcock and his band Deep Fix (yes, Michael Moorcock sang and wrote songs!) involves the denizens of a carnival in a post-apocalyptic world.
  • Mötley Crüe's 2005 "Carnival Of Sins" tour (documented on the DVD of the same name) was described by Nikki Sixx as "a circus gone wrong".
  • The artwork for Mr. Bungle's self-titled first album centers around this trope, as does the song Carousel (off the same album).
  • Nightwish's:
    • The song Scaretale has a part like this.
    • As does the music video for Storytime.
  • Nox Arcana's CD Carnival of Lost Souls is based on ''Something Wicked This Way Comes'', so features one of these.
  • The circus folk in Panic! at the Disco's "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" are a subversion since, while definitely creepy, they're actually the good guys.
  • P!nk's Funhouse Tour featured quite a few freakish clowns. The name comes from one of her songs: "This used to be a fun house/But now it's full of evil clowns".
  • Poets of the Fall's "Carnival of Rust." The Carnival is run down and creepy, and the staff is menacing and vaguely predatory. The video's plot revolves around Zoltar, a depressive, decaying Carnival automaton with flaking paint, and the experiences of the gas-masked female customer who he tries to persuade to stay with foreboding, increasingly desperate pleas and demands for a relationship while banging on the walls of his case.
  • The Song "Devil's Playground" by the Rigs is seemingly inviting someone to one of these, though, the Devil being the Devil isn't exactly trustworthy. The attendee is given a throne, encouraged to feast from the fruit of every tree told that they can look and touch and given "Chains of Freedom". Constant reassurances are: I promise that it's safe and "I swear it won't cost much."
  • A K-pop version is the video for Midnight Circus by the group Sunny Hill.
  • The Song Flohzirkus by Samsas Traum is exactly about this. One of four thrown knives is guaranteed to hit, and the woman is actually sewn in half.
  • "Circus Apocalypse" by the dark cabaret act, Vermillion Lies.
    Come down and join the circus
    It's the end of your world
    Come down and join the circus
    All you dead boys and girls
    If you still have a pulse
    We can remedy that
    You can check your life
    While you check your hat
  • Vocaloid: "Dark Woods Circus" is a song about children being kidnapped, mutilated and turned into gruesome circus freaks. The attractions include Rin and Len stitched together to make artificial conjoined twins, Miku as a siren with deformed legs, and Kaito as a cannibal.
  • A lot of Tom Waits' stuff, especially the albums Swordfishtrombones, Franks Wild Years, Rain Dogs, Alice (which includes a song about Johnny Eck), The Black Rider, and Blood Money.
  • The song "Grease Paint and Monkey Brains" by White Zombie. It even starts with a circus calliope breaking down mid-song.

    Professional Wrestling 

  • The Circus of the Other (more accurately translated from the original Russian as "Another Circus") from The Magnus Archives certainly qualifies as this. It has had disturbingly deformed freaks in its freak show (including people without heads), kidnapped a child and forced him to walk a tightrope as two clowns fought brutally below, and ripped an audience member's skin off as part of an advertisement. It toured in Russia in the 1940s and 50s and was never seen again, until it returned in London in 2013. It serves as the Arc Villain for Season 3, with its ringmaster being Nikola Orsinov, a mannequin who wears people's skins.
  • Inverted in one episode of Welcome to Night Vale. A carnival arrives in the supernatural town of Night Vale, and the host on the local radio station, Cecil, clearly believes them to be the trope, using his program to repeatedly caution the local citizens against them by describing them as weird and disturbing. Eventually, Cecil's scaremongering leads to a mob gathering and chasing the carnival out of town, at which point it becomes obvious that the carnival was perfectly normal and benign all along, and that it was the townsfolk who were the scary weirdos antagonizing them.

  • G-rated example: The 54th album of Adventures in Odyssey features a carnival that is a front for a counterfeiting ring.

  • It has been announced that once Grave Academy starts, a part of the academy or a separate location will be this.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The Pale Moon clan of Cardfight!! Vanguard is less grisly than most other examples on the page, appearing to all intents and purposes a regular circus run by fetish-appealing performers, but these staff are monsters, the circus animals are chimera, and one stronger performer of note is a giant Uncanny Valley Girl.
  • Dungeons & Dragons
    • The titular organisation from Ravenloft's Carnival box set seems like this at first, with the workers divided roughly between mutated freaks and spooky, utterly silent folks in bizarre face paint, many of which work as rather disturbing clowns, but it actually subverts the trope. The Carnival is one of the most accepting and hospitable places in the Demiplane of Dread, and most of the workers are good people. Most of them... there are some members who are actually evil, though they've managed to hide this from their fellows. One of the options for the true nature of Isolde, their leader, (and which has more or less been adopted as the truth), is that she's a rogue angel who came to Ravenloft to pursue the incubus known as the Gentleman Caller, with the Twisting resulting from the interaction between her nature and the sheer corrupt nature of Ravenloft. The original workers for Isolade's Carnival, however, are escapees from a now-dead Darklord called "The Puppetmaster", who ruled a domain (the Carnival l'Morai) that played this trope straight (Carnival of Fear, mentioned in Literature above, deals with the original domain, not the current Carnival).
      • Despite all this, as is only appropriate in Ravenloft, the Carnival's still very creepy. The Skurra are attendant Vistani who wear strange black and white facepaint (the Skurra-verra) that protects them from the Twisting at the cost of making them mute. The Twisting causes people who stay overlong in the Carnival to mutate, their form changing to reflect their hearts and souls- for example, the bitter and malevolent Professor Pacali's repressed plots take life as deformed midget "things" that grow from his flesh. This is the source of his "Pickled Punks". One of the "attractions" are the horrifically warped Chaos Spawn-like remnants of people who attacked the Carnival, entities referred to simply as The Abominations. And some of the populace were strange and unnatural before they entered the Carnival, like a bloodthirsty leopard with the ability to assume a humanoid form, a Seawolf (an amphibious werewolf), the Fetch of an evil wizard and a Wax Golem.
    • 1st edition supplement Adventure Pack I, adventure "The Circus of Gandolfo". The title circus is just a cover for a Doctor Frankenstein-like Mad Scientist who likes to kidnap people and perform bizarre experiments on them.
    • The Guildmasters' Guide To Ravnika has the Cult of Rakdos, mentioned below. As if being a cult full of sado-masachistic serial killers wasn't bad enough, most of the high level members and demons in the cult have the ability to inflict mindless fury and bloodlust on anyone in their vicinity, so there's a good chance that any given show of theirs ends with the audience members tearing each other apart.
    • The third-party setting of Heckna! takes place in The Revelia, a magical realm that looks like a circus and drifts in and out of different planes. The Revalia's master, the Repulsive Ringmaster Heckna, likes to lure people to his carnival in his search for greater, more spectacular challenges. Some of The Revalia's notable residents include Puppeteer Parasites that look like clown noses and turn their hosts into zombie-like Clown Thralls, bloodthirsty and mischievous HumanoidAbominations that look like small, colorfully dressed children, and a giant Antlion Monster that lives under the ballpit.
  • One of the canon Abyssal Exalted is The Melkin Fool in Red, who is the ringmaster of the Circus Moribund. Little information is available about the Circus itself, but much can be inferred from the fact that it is run by an Abyssal.
  • One of the playable "families" in Gloom is Darius Dark's Den of Deformity. The description for Darius Dark himself is: "The circus is in Darius' blood. And there is an awful lot of blood in Darius' circus." Although creepy and weird, the circus performers don't seem to be evil so much as incompetent, like a midget opera singer who can't sing, an illustrated lady who's far too modest to show off her tattoos, and a "bearded man". Then there's Mister Giggles...
  • The Circus Maximus for GURPS.
    • Also for GURPS, Poponax the Evil Clown's carnival from the Magic Items 2 sourcebook. The carnival itself is relatively harmless, but all the prizes and souvenirs the visitors receive are cursed.
  • Magic: The Gathering has the sado-masochistic hedonist Cult of Rakdos with its circuses of DOOM.
  • In the Mutant Chronicles Universe, the Dark Apostle Semai's method of obtaining sleeper agents in human society is by having carnivals in big cities abduct children to brainwash them.
  • The Old World of Darkness has the Midnight Circus, a wandering circus of horrors and evil that eventually got its own sourcebook to reveal its secrets. It's literally packed with every kind of monster that exists in the World of Darkness, from vampires to werebeasts to faeries to Formori to witches to full-fledged demons. All of them are either evil, or so deformed and horrific that they have nowhere else to go. To put this in perspective, a Midnight Circus member who almost qualifies as a Token Good Teammate would be "Tub of Flesh", a Nosferatu who had the misfortune of falling into the hands of Sascha Vyskos. Consequently, whilst he deeply loves children and strives to protect them, he's basically a roiling mass of semi-liquid purple-black flesh that constantly forms and reabsorbs eyes and fanged mouths. And even then, he's still a vicious killer when he needs to be, and he has to feed on blood. That's right, one of the nicest members of the Midnight Circus is a blood-drinking Shoggoth-expy with a soft spot for kids.
    • In the New World of Darkness, Vampire: The Requiem gives us the vampiric bloodline called the Carnival. Every last vampire of the bloodline bears a circus-freak deformity (their founder suffered from sirenalia, and was billed as "the Andalusian Mermaid"), and they often act as traveling or static carnivals, the better to hide in plain sight.
  • The Pathfinder module Carnival of Tears showcases a carnival where icy fey have taken over, and are slaughtering the attending townsfolk in gruesomely creative ways. No one notices, due to powerful illusion magic that replaces every event of horror with a completely normal, even enjoyable, carnival scene.
    • Second Edition has the Adventure Path "Extinction Curse", in which your group of circus performers has fled from one of these dubbed "The Celestial Managerie" to Start My Own competing circus.
  • The Swords & Sorcery Scarred Lands setting has a Circus of Fear nation. The Carnival of Tears in Blood Bayou.
  • Appearing in the Warhammer spinoff game Mordheim, and referenced in Warhammer too, is the Carnival of Chaos, a circus staffed by Chaos worshippers and daemons of Nurgle (who, despite being the Chaos God of despair, is a rather jovial fellow). The show seems to be benign until the climax when the Carnival members and and their stage's true putrid corruption is revealed. At this point the entertainers slaughter anyone who hasn't already fallen to the diseases secretly spread during the performance. They then round up the women and children who survived, the Carnival Master taking a finger from each woman and taking them as his "wives".
    • The Warhammer 40,000 roleplaying game Dark Heresy introduces The Menagerie, which uses carnivals, revels and fetes as a cover to expose innocent people to sanity-blasting, flesh-warping horrors. Come and see! You must come and see!
    • The Carnivora from Ravenor is a Roman-style circus where gladiators fight to the death as the main event, while acrobats perform death-defying stunts without safety nets and drugged clowns get eaten alive by alien beasts as sideshows. Ravenor’s people infiltrate the Carnivora as part of their investigation into the flect trade, getting into fights with some of the staff and beasts in the process.

  • In the 2013 Broadway revival of Pippin, the Show Within a Show "Pippin, His Life and Times" is specifically being performed by a circus troupe (with performers from the Real Life Canadian troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main). The reason it's this trope is that over the course of the production, particularly in the second act, matters become increasingly disturbing until the Grand Finale - where the players try to convince Pippin to commit a dramatic suicide in order to be "Extraordinary". When he refuses, the Lead Player becomes hostile and takes away the "magical illusions" of the show and he and the company encourage members of the audience to come and take Pippin's place. Because "we're right inside in your heads!".

    Theme Parks 
  • Universal's Halloween Horror Nights has done this plenty of times, most notably in 2007 with the "Carnival of Carnage" theme, where the event's main icon, Jack the Clown, rounds up his own band of sideshow freaks and creates a horribly demented midway. He would later do this horror carnival again in 2015, the event's 25th anniversary.

  • Monster High plays on the atmosphere of this trope (not the menace) in the Freak du Chic line, which introduces Gooliope Jellington, a circus-raised giant and gives the gang elaborate circus looks to go with her. This is also invoked by the Scared Silly add-on guise of one of the Inner Monster dolls, and by Merry Trotabout, a carousel-horse Fright-Mare.note 

    Video Games 
  • Ape Escape takes this trope and packs every element into the first half of the first game's monstrously huge Very Definitely Final Dungeon. The main area is an amusement park taken over by the Big Bad, with lots of separate areas branching off, including a crazy mine cart style roller coaster, and a more literal circus flavored area, where you must defeat an evil clown. The other sections are mostly other common video game settings, including The Wild West and a Big Boo's Haunt. This is only the first half of the level. The other, even longer, half is the Big Bad's flying castle, which includes elements of Tomorrowland. Yeah, this series really likes its location tropes.
  • Baldur's Gate II: The circus in Waukeen's Promenade starts out normal — until their disgruntled illusionist Kalah uses powers gained from some kind of an implied Deal with the Devil to turn the inside of the tent into a weird personal world of his own that is Bigger on the Inside and that no-one can escape until he is defeated.
  • Ryan Amusements in BioShock's Rapture is designed mostly as a propaganda device to scare children into never going to the surface.
  • Blood's "Dark Carnival" in the first episode is supremely twisted. Aside from a lantern-carrying statue of Death siccing zombies on you when you ignore his request for a ticket, the optional game where you kick a severed head through a slowly opening and closing mouth to win a prize, or the secret funhouse level that shoves rotting skeletons at you while maniacal laughter plays, there's also the fact that the whole place is built next to an evil temple filled with cultists who want you dead. Well, deader.
  • Okay, so it's a carnival, but Tokkentakker's little three-ring terror ride that is the basis of CarnEvil certainly fits the bill, complete with demonic floating clown head.
  • The Nation of Fools from Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin. Enemy types include demonic clowns and evil acrobats. The circus appears to be in some post apocalyptic world surrounding a black hole. At the end of the level, the black hole turns out to be the level boss Legion. The creepy mock-circus music just to drive the point home. There is also another Circus Level at the Hub Level within the Hub Level.
  • The higher levels of play in the MMORPG City of Heroes include a "Circus of Fear"-style villain group called the Carnival of Shadows. In addition to crime, the members of the Carnival feed on their patrons' souls.
  • LeChuck converts a part of Monkey Island into an amusement park of doom (the "Carnival of the Damned") in The Curse of Monkey Island as part of his master scheme: Reasoning that the first thing a sailor wants when he arrives to port is a family-oriented fun-park, he builds the Carnival of the Damned, and its centerpiece ride, the Rollercoaster of Death, leads straight into Big Whoop and converts everyone who boards the ride into a ghost pirate minion.
  • The first level of Dark Chronicle had one of these coming to Max's town, which culminated in a boss fight against the deranged clown Ringmaster and his pet elephant, Linda. And then he chases you onto a train and throws bombs at you until the whole train derails.
  • A free update of Darkest Dungeon added the Butcher's Circus mode, a PVP mode. In it, the attraction is your set of heroes against an opposing set of heroes in a fight to the death in a gladiatorial arena. Character attacks, abilities, and trinkets have different properties, such as dealing stress to enemies or giving more balanced buffs/debuffs and damage-scaling.
  • Donkey Kong Country:
  • EarthBound (1994) has this in the city of Threed. It already starts off with a scary circus and a town overrun with undead/spectral monsters. The trope is inverted at first, as the big top is the sanctuary for townspeople. When another circus tent mysteriously shows up, there's a variation on the circus tent being where the monsters are held, as the tent itself is a monster.
  • Earthworm Jim 2 provides an example with Circus Of The Scars, also known as Inflated Head, best summed up by Something Awful forumite Phiggle in his Let's Play of the game as such:
    "You ever been to a carnival? You know that game they have with the water guns and they're shooting water into these clowns' mouths and there's a water balloon that inflates and inflates, eventually it explodes, everybody's happy, whoever won the race gets a prize from, you know, the carny who's got, like, three thumbs on both hands, you know what I'm talking about? Well, that's basically this level. Except for the part where everybody's happy. This level's hard."
  • House of the Dead: OVERKILL has one with Mutant Clowns and a freakshow complete with a freak as a boss. A freakier freak than a normal mutant.
  • The yearly summer sideshow event in Killing Floor turns all the specimens into circus-themed versions of themselves. For instance, the flesh pound becomes the flesh clown, and the patriarch becomes a ringmaster. There is also a map made for said event called "Abusement Park."
  • The fourth level of the second world in Kirby: Triple Deluxe is an abandoned circus crawling and teeming with ghosts that can be only seen via reflective mirrors.
  • The third campaign of Left 4 Dead 2 is "Dark Carnival", a dreary trek through the Whispering Oaks Amusement Park. While it wouldn't have actually been an evil carnival under normal circumstances, taking place during the Zombie Apocalypse means it's a dark, run-down place where hordes of undead are drawn into roaming packs by the squeaky shoes of the zombie clowns.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask has a giant music box that plays what can only described as scary circus music. It doesn't even help much that it also scares the mummies away.
  • Marvel Ultimate Alliance has a level in Murderworld, mentioned in the Comics section. Complete with kamikaze bots, android copies of party members, and clowns with radioactive flower-squirts.
  • Mystery Case Files sets two of its games, Madame Fate and Fate's Carnival, in the titular Madame Fate's Carnival. The detective is tasked to investigate the death of Madame Fate herself and a curse that's engulfed her carnival.
  • Neopets has the flash game aptly named Carnival of Terror and has a world called The Deserted Fairground. Both are located in the Haunted Woods.
  • Nexus Clash has the Circus Carnivorous, a blood-soaked amphitheater in the heart of Fire and Brimstone Hell. A giant obelisk of living stone-flesh festering with the unholy madness of the dark god Tholaghru occupies center stage, and needless to say it's not safe to sit in the audience.
  • Painkiller: Battle out of Hell has a circus/fun fair called Loony Park with killer clowns and monsters made out of snack food.
  • Downplayed in Paper Mario: Color Splash with The Emerald Circus—it is a deathtrap, and the most potent one on Prism Island, but it's targeted largely at Mario, and any other targets are active and known allies of Mario. Nevertheless, from Mario's perspective, he has to face down firebreathing Dino-Rhinos and their trainers, Shy Guy acrobats who can dodge Mario's attacks, juggling Hammer Brothers on tightropes Mario cannot cross, and Lemmy Koopa, a Stage Magician determined to make Mario "disappear" for good.
  • The downloadable Loon track in POD featured deformed fairytale castles, giant roulette wheels, an enormous wizard hat and rusted metal plates, located on a planet infested by an alien virus. Or is it? When you look over the guardrails, there is only a black void there...
  • The final level of Psychonauts is the Meat Circus, a creepy circus made of flesh and bone. The knife-throwers attempt to target Raz and cute bunnies fall into meat grinders and become horrible bunny mutants, who then proceed to target the child you have to protect as a part of the game's escort mission. The reason the final level is a frightening mish-mash of these elements is because Raz and the Big Bad Coach Oleander's minds have been merged. Raz's mind causes the world to look like the circus he grew up and performed in, while Oleander's mind causes the world to take on features that were part of his upringing as the son of a butcher. Raz thinks his dad hates him because of his psychic abilities, causing the circus to turn hostile. As a boy, Oleander saw his father demonstrate firsthand that he thought the bunnies he loved were only good for meat, causing the rabbits in the level to become bunny-mutants who attack the mental representation of Oleander as a child.
  • The second Soviet mission of Red Alert 3 which takes place in a vagrant carnival built on an abandoned rocket test site. It seems sparsely populated until the Soviets activate the abandoned launch facility upon which Japanese troops (including a Psychic Commando) burst out of the tents and surround the Soviets. The actual mission itself is called "Circus of Treachery".
  • Resident Evil: Outbreak has a level that takes part in the Raccoon City Zoo, which happened to have a large Big Top set up in honor of Oscar the Elephant. Who's now zombified, hungry, and VERY persistent. While it's possible to evade him until the end, you can kill him at any point in the level if you're packing enough heat, but you can also distract him by playing his theme music over the loudspeaker which tricks him into instinctively marching around the Big Top and ignoring you. If a marching flesh-eating zombie elephant parading around the Big Top doesn't say "Circus of Fear", nothing does. Also, if you do kill him beforehand a pair of zombified African lions take his place in the final battle.
  • The first Shining Force game for the Genesis had a circus-based level, with a powerful marionette heading up the attacking forces (clowns included).
  • Stage 6 in Silent Assault, complete with a Monster Clown head for a boss.
  • The theme park from Silent Hill 3 is the Dark Silent Hill version of a theme park. Come for the faceless fairytale characters, stay for the hooded, twitching carousel flesh-horses and dark echoes of previous lives!
  • Sonic the Hedgehog:
    • Take your average Circus Of Fear, add in untold volumes of molten rock for all the geothermal power you'll ever need, have the whole thing built in a week due to harnessing the powers of a monster, and staff it with robots out the ass. Welcome to Eggmanland. Enjoy your stay.
    • Also, Sonic The Hedgehog 3 had Carnival Night Zone. The music could be described as very catchy, and that damn barrel...
    • Casino Park in Sonic Heroes. Not just a way to make Rings, but doubling as a death trap for Sonic.
    • Shadow the Hedgehog has Circus Park, overrun by GUN soldiers and aliens, which is also an Amusement Park of Doom. It was built by Eggman with rings stolen through his evil schemes, to finance his evil schemes, which is also a little scary because it shows Eggman's settling in for the long haul with his own business.
  • Spider-Man 2: Mysterio creates a "Funhouse of Doom" to use against Spider-Man, which functions as one of these. It has robots, traps and illusions.
  • In the Spider-Man: The Animated Series game for Sega Genesis, the Green Goblin takes over Coney Island in the second level, and you have to fight your way into the fun house to capture him. The music on the soundtrack is very Danny Elfman-like, creepy and catchy, and among the Mooks you have to mop up are strong men, fire-breathers, and armless cobra people(!).
  • Parodied by the sixth Halloween update of Team Fortress 2. In the game's universe, the very first carnival was made to be evil and to appease the Clown God Boffo, and evil circuses have followed in this tradition ever since.
  • TimeSplitters 2, features all kinds of nightmareish characters in the Circus of Fear theme, like cannibalistic clowns, siamese twins that are treated as separate characters by the game, and a lion tamer who brainwashed himself into becoming a lion.
  • Twisted Metal:
  • The aptly named Wonky Circus in Wario World. There's also the circus setting for the third boss (Chortlebot) in Wario Land: The Shake Dimension, although it's only ever used as a battle arena against said Monster Clown.
  • In World of Warcraft:
    • The Darkmoon Faire is a recurring event, and definitely qualifies for this trope. It is most assuredly not a wholesome thing; much of the staff is undead, the colours are flatly ugly, the designs on the tents are disturbing, and then there are the quests.
    • With patch 4.3, it gets even creepier, as you now go to Darkmoon Island. When you enter the portal, you end up in a very ominous forest with gnarled, apparently dead trees. The signs that point you to the fair mention "ignoring the eyes" in the forest. There was some mention of never wandering too far into the woods... And if you decide to look around you might find some cages filled with humanoid skeletons, and a forsaken woman selling some rather questionable meat products.
    • Then there's that all-seeing eye at the entry gate that looks a lot like it belongs to one of the raid bosses... and the NPC who stumbles over his words as he almost says that the Master would be interested in certain items. It is very heavily implied that the Faire is related to the Big Bad of that expansion.
    • And then there's a Killer Rabbit based on the trope codifier.
    • There's also a Darkmoon Eye collectible battle pet that is a dead ringer for the Eye of Sauron.

    Web Animation 
  • Nomad of Nowhere: It turns out the Twindleweed Brothers' Circus is composed of retired bounty hunters who capture the Nomad easily...but the only member who's actively evil is Twindleweed himself; the others are just desperate for money.
  • An episode of the Flash series Xombie had Dirge and Zoe fighting a horde of zombie clowns in an abandoned amusement park, while Dirge's undead dog Cerberus faced off against a zombie tiger.


    Web Original 
  • Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab made a series of perfumes with collectible cards designed around the "Carnaval Diabolique".
  • SCP Foundation:
    • SCP-1323 ("A County Fair"). This appears to be a carnival run by The Fair Folk. Customers have to buy tickets by paying things like a cherished memory, or (ominously vague) "a favor", and anyone who eats food there has a 17% chance of staying there permanently as an employee.
    • Herman Fuller's Circus of the Disquieting; the performers found by the SCP Foundation, while creepy, are pretty friendly (and mostly maltreated), but the Man With The Upside-down Face they keep mentioning is decidedly not. And the Repulsive Ringmaster, Herman Fuller himself, is friendly on the outside only. Also described as a little big top that wasn't there yesterday in a tale. After Herman is kicked out of the circus it actually becomes a much nicer place. While it is still a horror-themed circus that employs actual monsters and engages in some morally-gray actions, it has become more of a Rag Tag Bunch Of Misfits that just wants to entertain.
      Opening Night: Not an eye sees our caravan pull up in the moonlit lot. Not a soul hears the sound of our spikes driven into the earth. One day we're not there, the next day we are.

    Western Animation 
  • Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers: "Wild" Bill Krebb's sideshow in "Showtime." The performers are slaves, the acts have zero safety nets, and he gladly exploits the fact that Andorians go feral in captivity.
  • Aqua Teen Hunger Force: In "Circus," Shake sells Meatwad to the circus for $2. Other acts include "Inside-out Boy," and the show does not go well for anyone, especially the audience.
  • Bear Story: The animals are kidnapped from their homes and made slaves at a circus, driven by whip-cracking circus performers.
  • Ben 10: "Last Laugh" features a circus led by a Vampiric Draining Monster Clown named Zombozo, whose members included: Acid Breath, a zombie-looking man breathing acid; Thumbskull, a Dumb Muscle strong man with a broken horn on his head; and Frightwig, a Dark Action Girl with Combat Tentacles as hair.
  • Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels: In "Clownfoot", the episode's villainous clown, Clownfoot, uses a circus as his hideout. At said circus, Clownfoot also rigs a tandem bicycle Wilma and Betty are riding on a high-wire to fall apart, over a cage full of hungry saber-tooth tigers.
  • Cyber Six: Jose's mechanical circus seems pretty cool to the audience but is actually an elaborate death drap for the titular character. Of course if you get out of line, like Lucas does, you get taken to the back and thrown to a massive two-headed robotic snake.
  • Danny Phantom: Circus Gothica is a cover to rob towns, and the ringmaster (appropriately named Freakshow) uses his staff to brainwash ghosts and force them to work for him. Not to mention what almost happened to Sam when she was forced onto the tightrope...
  • Loonatics Unleashed: One episodes has a circus where Mix-and-Match Critters are made and used to perform.
  • Mighty Max has an episode where an Evil clown named Freeko kidnaps children, and morphs them into creatures for his freakshow. This episode, as one would expect, is brimming with horror.
  • Mighty Orbots had to deal with "The Cosmic Circus", a fake circus designed to duplicate key members in the Galactic Patrol. Was actually kinda creepy.
  • My Little Pony 'n Friends: In "Somnambula", the titular witch invites the ponies into her illusory carnival, where she steals their youth.
  • Rayman: The Animated Series has one of these as the whole plot setting. Did I mention half the cast are kids?
  • ReBoot: The Funhouse. One of the rarest games on the Net (because only User children play it) and is nearly impossible for sprites to beat. Bob and Dot are the only confirmed sprites to escape it alive.
  • Team Galaxy: The season 1 finale features circus clowns who kidnap humans for their performances.
  • Tiny Toon Adventures: "Sawdust and Toonsil" has Gogo Dodo caught and imprisoned by a very-Satanic-looking ringmaster when he attempts to rescue some of his fellow Wackyland residents (a sphinx, a unicorn, etc.) from a circus. Babs, Buster, and Plucky have to rescue him. They never really show the rest of the circus, but the Ringmaster's treatment of the Wackylanders is pretty nightmare-inducing.

    Real Life 
  • Carnival Diablo: The Ultimate Sideshow plays on this trope. The Carnival is run by the Devil, and the performers are presented as other-worldly beings with bizarre abilities. Many acts seem to put performers, and sometimes audience members, in danger.
  • The Circus of Horrors is a real circus show that plays on the trope.
  • The mad clowns, Heckles and Twitch.
  • The original Roman-style gladiatorial arena, making this trope Older Than Feudalism. However, the "attractions" were only scary to the people in the pit as most Romans enjoyed these public displays of violence. The gladiatorial games were even more horrible (to us) than most modern people realize, beginning with staged (but still hazardous) hunts of wild animals in the morning, executions of lower-class criminals such as slaves by various gruesome methods over lunch (during which time most respectable people left the arena to eat), then the lesser gladiatorial events such as fights involving noxii (who were sentenced to death by fighting and had their skulls bashed in at the end if they happened to survive the combat) and finally the main gladiator duels, which were relatively safe; a few gladiators actually survived more than ten fights. But the real Circus of Fear here was this: for the Romans, a proper funeral was essential to having a proper afterlife (and the real gladiators were organized in guilds that gave them just that if they fought bravely). For those who were executed in the arena and had their bodies torn apart, burned, or later dumped in trash heaps or the river, the agony and horror of death was just the transition to eternal suffering as a lost soul.
  • Circus Circus in Las Vegas used to have a 3D motion ride with this trope as its theme.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Creepy Circus


Glove World

SpongeBob and Patrick go to Glove World for the concert, but the place quickly becomes a chaotic apocalypse after the Jelliens ambush and attack the place.

How well does it match the trope?

4.67 (9 votes)

Example of:

Main / AmusementParkOfDoom

Media sources: