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Circus of Magic

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"We play madboys on stage and perform mundane miracles. We're just players in a show, and so we are able to hide in plain sight."
Master Payne, Girl Genius

The circus is in town! But this is no ordinary circus. This circus has an advantage over others: The performers are actually magic. Maybe they're looking for victims for some horrific death. Maybe they're hiding from the organization that made them. Maybe when The Masquerade ended, they couldn't get any work but using their powers to entertain. Maybe they're just a bunch of people who love performing and happen to have magic to help them do it. Whatever the reason, they decided the best way to deal with it was to put on a circus.

This trope also includes carnivals of magic. It will generally employ Magicians Are Wizards for most or all of the performers. If the circus performers are hiding from someone, this may coincide with Refuge in Audacity. If the circus is used as a horror setting, it becomes a Circus of Fear. Compare Magical Clown and The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday.



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    Anime & Manga 
  • At one point during the Eighth Child search arc in Digimon Adventure, Wizardmon can be seen entertaining children at a circus grounds while trying to determine if any of them are the Eighth Child.
  • One set of Sailor Moon villains worked out of the Dead Moon Circus while they hunted for dream mirrors.

    Film — Live Action 
  • The Dust Factory: Each person dwelling in the Dust Factory must enter the circus pavilion and make a leap (a literal leap of faith) across the arena into the arms of a trapeze artist to proceed into death or return to life. The latter decision occurs when a participant falls into the arena during the leap, leaving behind a pile of dust.
  • The Circus Arcanus in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was a travelling wizarding circus and freak show owned by Skender that boasted the "world's most complete congress of human oddities". Of course, they were playing to an audience of wizards and witches.

  • The Circus of Doctor Lao: A circus owned by a Chinese man named Dr. Lao pulls into town one day, carrying legendary creatures from all areas of mythology and legend, among them a sea serpent, Apollonius of Tyana (who tells dark, yet always truthful, fortunes), a medusa, and a satyr. Through interactions with the circus, the locals attain various enigmatic peak experiences appropriate to each one's particular personality.
  • In the Heralds of Valdemar book Winds of Fury, the protagonists, who have a variety of magic, Psychic Powers, and Bond Creatures in the shape of large white horses, sneak into an enemy nation using a Needle in a Stack of Needles approach—they use their illusions and showy magic to disguise themselves as carnival performers, hucksters, and charlatans, and travel towards the capital as part of an actual carnival troupe. Performing in carnivals seems to be a common occupation for low-power mages, making it an excellent disguise.
  • Learn About Loss, one of the short stories in Ghosts Of The Shadowmarket by Cassandra Clare takes place at the Mysterious Merchants' Bazaar of the Bizarre. The bazaar looks like a normal, mundane carnival, but it is actually a Shadow market in disguise. The carnival includes various stalls that sell magical items, a blood donating stand for 'research purposes' run by vampires and a maze of mirrors in which a demon shows people horrifying illusions.
  • The Night Circus is set in a wandering magical circus that is open only from sunset to sunrise. Le Cirque des Reves (The Circus of Dreams) features such wonders and "ethereal enigmas" as a blooming garden made all of ice, acrobats soaring without a net, and a vertical cloud maze where patrons who get lost simply step off and float gently to the floor. The circus serves a darker purpose beyond entertainment and profit. Two powerful magicians, Prospero the Enchanter and the enigmatic Mr. A.H-, groom their young proteges, Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair, to proxy their rivalry with the exhibits as a stage.
  • The Pilo Family Circus is not only a Circus of Fear home to sorcerers, prophets, supernaturally-empowered clowns and transforming ringmasters, but it's eventually revealed to not be a travelling show at all: it's set in a Pocket Dimension that occasionally connects itself to the gates of a mundane circus or carnival and steals the customers for itself. It's actually engaged in the business of extracting the souls of the customers and crystalizing them into wishing powder, and operating on behalf of an imprisoned race of Eldritch Abomination.
  • The first book in The Saga of Darren Shan is called Cirque du Freak after the show in the book where the main character, Darren, meets the vampire who bloods him and takes him away from his human life. In the first book, Darren watches as a member of the audience - he sees the extreme contortionists and man with two stomachs; Truska, the "bearded lady" who can grow hair at will; Evra the Snake-boy, and others — not to mention the aforementioned vampire Mr. Crepsley. In book 2, Mr. Crepsley returns to the circus with Darren in tow, and the young vampire meets the other performers up close, becomes friends with them (especially Evra, who is close to his age), and even joins as a performer alongside his mentor. Later in the series after many dark turns, when Darren has become embroiled in a vampire war and Mr. Crepsley has died in battle, Darren returns to the Cirque and it is like home to him. Truska, Evra, and others give him the warmth and comfort he needs.
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes is about 13-year-old best friends, Jim Nightshade and William Halloway, and their nightmarish experience with a traveling carnival that comes to their Midwestern town one October, and how the boys learn about combatting fear. The carnival's leader is the mysterious "Mr. Dark," who seemingly wields the power to grant the citizenry's secret desires. In reality, Dark is a malevolent being who, like the carnival, lives off the life force of those they enslave.

    Live Action TV 
  • Carnivàle casts the epic battle between Good and Evil against a background of the traveling circus and the revival tent. One story line involves an escaped convict with the ability to heal the afflicted and resurrect the dead as he follows a carnival troupe across the country and slowly discovers clues to his Mysterious Past. The other story line focuses on a Methodist Sinister Minister in California who heeds a call from God to start his own church, awakening his own supernatural ability to manipulate others' thoughts and read their souls.
  • In the third season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a carnival comes to town that consists of magical pagans, including a gorgon, Pan, and Circe. Their magic is contrasted with that bestowed by Lucifer or Hecate. At least one of their performers, namely the gorgon, uses magic to charm her audience.
  • Heroes: Samuel Sullivan, the main villain of Season 4, runs the "Sullivan Bros. Carnival," a circus of people with superpowers. It's implied that he wants to assemble other superpowered people together because their presence makes his own powers stronger.
  • The Librarians 2014: "And the Tears of a Clown" features one of these as the episode's antagonist has created a traveling carnival using magic in order to find a girl he had his childhood sweetheart.

    Tabletop Games 

    Video Games 
  • Baldur's Gate II features a circus that is placed under a spell by the illusionist magician Kalah.
  • CarnEvil centers around the titular magic carnival. It is hidden below the graveyard in Greely Valley, but can be summoned by putting a token in the mouth of the jester skull on Ludwig von Tokkentakker's tombstone. It's implied that many, if not all of the carnival's residents are centuries-old zombies, though their true nature is never quite explained. However, Umlaut, the skull himself, is alive and floats around with a trail of sparkles, implying that he's one of the most magical residents.
  • In Guild Wars 2, if you choose the "joining the circus" trait, in the human personal story you encounter a carvial leader who uses a piece of Magitek called "the great floating Grizwhirl" that enchants circus attendees into mindless drones bent on killing Queen Jenna. It can also unleash all kinds of hallucinations.
  • Shining Force had a battle take place in one of these which had been set up by the bad guys to find sacrifices to resurrect Dark Dragon.

  • In Girl Genius, protagonist Agatha ends up in the company of Master Payne's Circus of Adventure: a traveling theater troupe that makes their living putting on shows based on the ever-popular "Heterodyne Boys" stories. As the troupe traverses the dangerous wastelands between towns, Agatha discovers that the circus is full of "sparks," or mad scientists. Traveling in the circus allows them to hide in plain sight, keeping them relatively safe from persecution they'd otherwise face from the decidedly anti-spark townsfolk they perform for. Their outlandish inventions get passed off as the kind of stage magic expected in a Heterodyne Boys show, and the more social expressions of their sparkishness (unprompted villainous rants, hyperfocus on their chosen area of study, the tendency to suggest replacing sprained ankles with steam-powered feet that can run at 200 kilometers an hour...) are dismissed as totally normal theatrical dramatics by their audiences.
    Master Payne: We play madboys on stage and perform mundane miracles. We're just players in a show, and so we are able to hide in plain sight.
  • Invoked in the The Order of the Stick prequel book Start of Darkness. Redcloak first discovers The Monster In The Darkness, a monster of tremendous magical power but unknown species, in a circus, where he is being exhibited as part of a sideshow that makes use of his magical nature.

    Western Animation 
  • Implied in Ben 10. Zombozo is the head of a circus act that gets people to laugh before using a machine to suck all the happiness out of them to fuel his own health and abilities. However, their supernatural abilities are never attributed to alien activity, implying that they're somehow magical in nature, as Zombozo was bitten by a zombie prior to the series.
  • Circus Gothica in Danny Phantom. Although some of the acts are intended to be scary, its primary purpose in Freakshow's family has been to show off their ghost-controlling abilities under the guise of a normal circus.

Alternative Title(s): Carnival Of Magic