Follow TV Tropes


Creepy Circus Music

Go To

"...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 with wheezing pipes and unsteady pressure regulation, leading to out-of-tune notes.

To make it even scarier, it's often Source Music in an Abandoned Area to indicate that the area is not so abandoned as the characters thoughts – and if a circus, which is well accustomed to packing up and moving, had to leave everything behind...well, whatever's inhabiting this place now is something to run away from very quickly.

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.

Please note: This trope is about circus music that is intended to be creepy. Some instances of circus music might come across as Accidental Nightmare Fuel, but you should use your judgment to figure out if the context in which the music plays is intentionally creepy or not. If it is not intended to be creepy, it most likely belongs on Happy Circus Music.

Compare Ironic Nursery Tune, Creepy Jazz Music, Sinister Whistling and Soundtrack Dissonance. See also Circus of Fear and Amusement Park of Doom. May overlap with Circus Synths, in which case it also fits Freaky Electronic Music. Contrast Happy Circus Music.

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.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Gyo: Towards the end of the story, the main character stumbles into a Circus of Fear where the insane ringmaster is directing a show performed by infected people and animals. There's also an orchestra of infected monster clowns that play an eerie tune, and the ringmaster points out that they aren't playing the instruments, but only blowing the virus gas into them which comes out as otherworldly music on its own. The ringmaster believes it's a "march from another world", that the gas is sentient and is communicating and directing all the infected circus artists, since they move along with its rhythm. Sadly the OVA downplays this scene a lot and the creepy circus music is rather bland.
  • A creepy little number called "Yuuenchi" plays in the Cowboy Bebop episode "Pierrot le Fou" when Spike Spiegel battles Mad Pierrot at his abandoned amusement park.
  • In Dragon Ball Z, several of Majin Buu's themes in the Funimation score have circus motifs, which totally fits the childishly deranged and pretty unsettlingly nature of the Manchild Humanoid Abomination.
  • The ending credits to Paranoia Agent.
  • The recurring number "Dream" from Mysterious Girlfriend X is definitely inspired by this.
  • This track from the soundtrack of Paprika.
  • Chargeman Ken!: "Waves of the Danube" in the Circus Episode is played in a minor key, and has a very melancholic tone. This turns out to be fitting, because the circus is a trap to kill Ken.

    Fan Works 

    Films — Animation 
  • Invoked in Animal Farm (1954). When the animals are exploring Mr. Jones' house, Benjamin accidentally starts up a record player that plays a loud, orchestral version of "Entry of the Gladiators." Benjamin is so frightened by the music that he kicks the record player with his donkey hooves, destroying it. Being a farm animal, Benjamin probably doesn't understand the concept of "circus music," but the music itself still sounded loud and hyperactive enough to scare him.
  • Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night: The infamous Nightmare Fuel scene in which Puppetino transforms Pinocchio back into a wooden marionette by playing a sinister, chaotic carnival music with a cursed organ grinder.
  • Batman: The Killing Joke: "I Go Looney," the Joker's written Villain Song from the original graphic novel about succumbing to madness in times of stress, is imagined here as a deranged carnival-ish tune, with a bit of a vaudeville showtune aesthetic as well. This is quite fitting for a Monster Clown singing about insanity to a man being forced through a carnival dark ride.
  • Coraline 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.
  • The Lion King (1994): The hyena theme sounds like a carnival of horrors that goes berserk after some time, fitting for such a group of deranged and clownish characters.
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas has some pretty intense carnival-esque music as Oogie Boogie sics his casino-themed deathtraps on Jack.

    Films — Live-Action 

  • Featured intermittently in Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes.
  • An early hint that something really weird is going on in Full Tilt is "the sound of calliope music and screams."
  • In Stephen King's IT, during his encounter with Pennywise at Derry's Standpipe, Stan Uris hears "Camptown Races" coming up from the dark staircase of the building. This is how it probably sounded like...

    Live-Action TV 

  • Older Than Television: "Alabama Song" 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." When they covered it on their debut album in 1967, The Doors played up the creepy angle in the arrangement, featuring Ray Manzarek playing both staccato organ notes and a Marxophone, an old zither connected to bouncing hammers that produces a jittery, chimey sound.
  • The first two Mr. Bungle albums are chock full of horrifying moments of off-key, sinister circus music, played on keyboards tuned to sound like a calliope or pipe organ. Their first album even features a Monster Clown on the cover.
  • "Come See the Meatboy" by Calibretto.
  • Vocaloid:
    • "Dark Woods Circus" by Machigherita
    • "Circus Monster" by Luka, which features the slowed-down variety. The song itself is actually rather sad, and the circus music adds to that effect. The tune in question sounds more sad then creepy.
  • "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 sinister combination of "Helter Skelter" and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)".
  • 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 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 a whole album of this stuff! For example, see Hall of Mirrors, in which a creepy organ waltz is backed up by the sounds of maniacal laughter.
  • The Eels song Trouble with Dreams. "Flyswatter" also has a similar feel to it - both have verse sections that juxtapose a creepy minor key toy piano riff with surprisingly aggressive drumming.
  • 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 this type of 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.
  • YouTube composers Derek & Brandon Fiechter have a whole series of this type of music, and most of the songs are even labelled word-for-word as "Creepy Circus Music". Look here. However, they also wrote a song called "Circus Performers", a joyful song that completely averts this trope and is instead labelled as simply "Circus Music". It's still placed in their "Halloween Music" playlist, though, probably to keep it together with the creepy circus music.
  • offers up Exactly What It Says on the Tin with the royalty free track Creepy.
  • Dot's Calliope EP is full of this, particularly the tracks "Calliope" and "Freakshow".
  • Kevin Macleod has written a few songs in this style, such as his "Tenebrous Brothers Carnival" series, and "Waltz of the Carnies".
  • Zomboy's song Organ Donor blends this with Dubstep and Speed Metal via an overclocked caliope, best described as ideal music for fighting your way out of a Circus of Fear. (the boss Monster Clown shows up at 2:31.)
  • SiIvaGunner: "Mad Jack Battle (Beta Mix)" combines the frantic brass and strings of Mad Jack's battle theme with the equally frantic melody of "The World Revolving." Mad Jack's creepy laugh is heard multiple times throughout the video to add to the effect.
  • "Sadly Go Around" by Bruno Alexiu is an eerie piece with an undercurrent of fast notes on a calliope and a music box melody. The song's title is an ironic twist on "merry-go-round."
  • The Cog Is Dead has "The Circus of Clowns," a song about a Circus of Fear containing several Monster Clowns. The tune prominently features a creepy music box melody and a swingy chorus.
  • Eminem's Subverted Kids' Show Signature Style involves elements of this, especially on The Eminem Show, Relapse and Music To Be Murdered By.
  • Unsurprisngly, "Carnival" by Rachel Rose Mitchell makes heavy use of this.
  • Five Finger Death Punch's "Welcome to the Circus" uses the off-key, creepy circus music at the beginning, during the bridge, and at the end.
  • The album Free to Be… You and Me uses this in the song "Girl Land," about the closing of the titular amusement park where "good little girls" pick up after the boys and are forbidden to climb trees, a thinly-veiled metaphor for tradition gender roles. It turns sinister when the ringmaster announces that "You go in a girl, and you never get out! It's revealed in the last verse that Girl Land will be replaced by a park where "You'll do what you like/And you'll be who you are."
  • Project Pitchfork have a Bread and Circuses-themed song with a Circus Synths main riff appropriately titled "The Circus".
  • The Human League's "Circus of Death".


    Pro Wrestling 

  • Alban Berg's Wozzeck — always a great source for horror music tropes — gestures towards this pretty strongly with the military parade music.
  • Assassins opens with a corny circus waltz arrangement of "Hail to the Chief" as the curtain rises on a shooting gallery of American presidents.
  • As mentioned under Film-Live Action, A Streetcar Named Desire features a Varsouviana Polka that plays whenever Blanche reminisces about her late husband, Allen Grey; it's a sign that her mind is gradually slipping. We eventually find out why: The two were dancing to the Varsouviana when Blanche, in a fit of rage, told Allen that she'd seen him in bed with a man earlier that day. Allen was so ashamed and terrified of his true sexuality being revealed that he ran out and shot himself. Blanche blames herself for his death, which was the catalyst to her own mental breakdown, and so the Varsouviana Polka has run endlessly through her head ever since.

    Video Games 

    Web Animation 
  • Bugbo: Circus organ waltz music plays when Bugbo and friends are looking around the underground circus in "Under the Oak." Although the music is in a major key, it falls under this category instead of Happy Circus Music due to the fact that the circus is dark, grimy, and run-down.
  • Experiment 16 by ZekeySpaceyLizard


    Web Original 

    Web Videos 
  • This rather disturbing parody of one of KFC's ads.
  • In Brutalmoose's video on Bailey's Book House, Ian pokes fun at the "Three-Letter Carnival", which, when he actually goes there, just looks like an empty field with a bunch of objects laying around. He points out that even the music, which is a circus-esque waltz tune, sounds kind of sad, and jokingly names the song "It's Time to Die, Children."
  • Call Me Kevin: Invoked and Played for Laughs in "How EVIL can you be in Bitlife?" Shortly after Kevin's character Eve Hill gets a job as a clown, he adopts a child and then promptly abandons them. Kevin hums "Entry of the Gladiators," the standard circus tune, while preparing to click the option to abandon the child.
  • Candle Cove Calliope Music, allegedly what the music in Candle Cove sounded like. This is one of many songs in a series of songs that this person made in 2011 that get progressively darker and creepier as the year goes on. Some of his songs from later in the year feature a Dark Reprise of this song.

    Western Animation 
  • In The Batman, Joker's Leitmotif is an eerie tune played on a distorted circusy-sounding organ. In some parts, it even sounds a bit like Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor!
  • 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 (1981) cartoon special "Smurfily Ever After".
  • The Powerpuff Girls (1998) 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:
    • When young Bart is scared by Homer's accidental Monster Clown bed decoration, a sinister carnival dirge builds up until Bart imagines the bed coming to life to tell him: "If you should die before you wake... HHHEHEHHEHEHEHEEH!!!"
    • When 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 a calliope playing "Over The Waves" slowed down.
  • 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 Chuckles, a deranged Robot Clown who tortures people on their birthdays. It sounds pretty unnerving with his high-pitched voice and constant laughter.
  • The Wander over Yonder episode "The Heebie Jeebies" makes liberal use of spooky-sounding calliope music due to the Monster of the Week being a troupe of Phantom Mimes, and it livens the genre up with threatening and booming drumbeats during more intense moments.
  • The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar: Invoked in "Tonight We Strike," the hyenas' Villain Song. It's set to a demented, bouncy brass tune, contains frequent laughter (including a few bits where they laugh along with the melody), and includes imagery such as the hyenas leaping through the air and running around in a circlenote  with either spotlights or harsh, brightly colored lighting, invoking the image of a Circus of Fear as Janja sings about his plan to disrupt order in the Pridelands.

    Real Life 
  • If you're at a circus show, 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 as a signal for the staff to begin evacuation procedures, and it's for this reason that it's nicknamed "The Disaster March". One of its most notable occurances was during the Hartford Circus Fire of July 6, 1944.


Amusement Mile

Don't go to a Gotham City carnival if you want happy music. (SFX muted to focus on the music.)

How well does it match the trope?

5 (2 votes)

Example of:

Main / CreepyCircusMusic

Media sources: