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Repulsive Ringmaster

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"Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and ghouls! Step right up! Behind this curtain lies a ghastly concoction of... Delight! Horror! Fantasy and terror! Your every wish is our command! Your every whimsical desire brought to life! But I'm warning you... there's always a price! Welcome to the greatest show unearthed!"
Creature Feature, "The Greatest Show Unearthed"
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Although not quite as popular as evil clowns, evil ringmasters are becoming more and more common in fiction. Basically, this trope can be defined as any evil, scary, or morally ambiguous character who runs a circus or carnival. If a character does not run a circus, this trope can still apply if they have a ringmaster-like appearance or theme. Perhaps the reason for this trope is because ringmasters are the leaders of circuses, which makes for a great Big Bad, with the clowns and other performers as Mooks. Another possible reason for this is The Barnum trope. As noted on that page, the Trope Namer, P.T. Barnum, was incorrectly credited with the quote "There's a sucker born every minute." Because of this, Repulsive Ringmasters tend to be portrayed as Con Men. The most mundane examples tend to be guilty of, at least, animal cruelty and the increasing public consciousness of this is probably another factor that contributed to the rise of this trope.

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It's also worth noting that, because of the lack of sound systems, ringmasters in the olden days had to shout to be heard. Because of this, evil ringmasters tend to be extremely hammy. Thanks to their long coats, mustaches, and top hats, many evil ringmasters fall into Dastardly Whiplash territory (although, instead of an all-black outfit, they'll usually wear a bright red jacket with black pants and hat). It is also common for ringmasters in fiction to be seen abusing their animals and performers. If the ringmaster fights, expect his or her Weapon of Choice to be a whip or a cane.

In an actual circus, the "ringmaster" is the master of ceremonies who introduce the acts. The actual name for the role usually called "ringmaster", as per the general irreverence of circus folk, is "Fancy Pants".

Compare Circus of Fear, Monster Clown, Evil Puppeteer and Depraved Kids' Show Host, and similar to The Host.

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Examples

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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Gyo, towards the end, there's an undead/supernatural ringmaster presenting the nature of the apocalypse.
  • In Heat Guy J, Magnagalia Prison surgically and genetically alters anyone who's committed a crime serious enough to warrant a 100+ year sentence such that their head turns into that of an animal, unlike Judoh, which practices capital punishment. Not only that, they are tortured daily by a man known as "the Beastmaster," who definitely evokes this image. He faces off against Boma after tracking him down in Judoh.
  • Butler, the villain of Pokemon Jirachi Wish Maker, is one of these. He's a former Team Magma scientist who wants to regain the organization's approval by using Jirachi's powers to revive Groudon.

    Comic Books 
  • Marvel Comics supervillain The Ringmaster, who runs the Circus of Crime, and has a special device hidden in his top hat, which he uses to hypnotize his audience so his goons can steal their valuables without any protest.
  • He may be the Clown Prince of Crime, but even The Joker has led a circus a few times. For example, in Batman #4, he leads a small circus troupe (actually some Mooks in disguise) that performs in the mansions of rich people so he can steal from them. Strangely, he does not wear your typical ringmaster outfit, instead he wears a more traditional clown costume, with a cone-shaped hat and a ruffled collar.
  • The Showman from The Last Temptation by Neil Gaiman emcees The Theater of the Real, and neatly ticks off nearly every stereotype associated with the ringmaster. He spends eternity trying to entice, frighten, and Mind Rape children and early teens into selling him their future, and the potential of everything they could have been. Those who agree are essentially transformed into ghouls, and even those who don't are strongly implied to be haunted and changed forever.
  • Spider-Man Noir: While he doesn't dress the part, the Goblin is a mob boss whose entourage were all recruited from 1920s freak shows, like the trainer Sergei, his chameleonic half-brother Dmitri, and the Vulture (whose specialty was biting the heads off of live chickens and graduated to I'm a Humanitarian). The reason for the Goblin's name is revealed when his face is ripped off, showing green, scaly skin underneath (he was himself a carnival freak).

    Fan Works 

    Film — Animated 
  • P.T. Flea in A Bug's Life is the ringmaster of the circus bugs, and the least heroic and most Jerkass out of them. There is one feat he accomplishes that requires guts, but he does it against the wrong target.
  • Animal Crackers (2017): Horatio P. Huntington, the Big Bad. Horatio used to run a circus with his brother Bob, but was always more interested in gaining fame than in the art of performing. Bob was a very kind and generous ringmaster (you could say he's a Reputable Ringmaster), and as a result, Bob was more successful, which drove Horatio mad. Horatio left Bob's circus and started his own with a few sideshow acts, but it wasn't very successful, so Horatio became bent on retaking Bob's circus.
  • Secret Magic Control Agency: At the beginning of the film, Gretel tracks down a circus and accuses the ringmaster of running a smuggling operation and kidnapping the king. It turns out she's wrong about them having the king - but the ringmaster does turn out to keep magical creatures, including a mermaid, in cages, claiming them to be happy when they're clearly miserable there and escape as soon as the cages are opened.
  • The Donkey King: Fitna, who is a Foul Fox on her own, is shown to be working for one such ringmaster, who is using her to obtain animals for his circus. To emphasize this, he's never speaks a coherent word, only communicating in growls and evil laughing.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • In Batman Forever, Two-Face takes a whole circus hostage (public included) with his gang and a bomb in order to find out who Batman really is. He dons a ringmaster outfit and 'hosts the show' while he's at it.
  • In Water for Elephants, the ring leader, August, is a drinker and abusive to his wife.
  • In The Unknown, Zanzi runs his circus with an iron hand, and has no issue with savagely beating Alonzo (who he believes to be armless). Malabar has to intervene to save Alonzo's life.
  • In Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Skender, the ringmaster of the Circus Arcanus, who has imprisoned the Maledictus (really Nagini) and Credence and uses the Maledictus' powers for some nefarious purpose.
  • In Circus of Horrors, Dr. Schüler is a Mad Doctor who is running Schüler's Circus as a cover for his plastic surgery experiments. He is also needlessly cruel to the circus animals. It should be noted, however, that while Dr. Schüler is the owner and manager of the circus, he is not the ringmaster. The actual ringmaster is a decent fellow who is completely unaware of Schüler's nefarious activities.
  • In The Greatest Showman Barnum himself cons a bank to get his start (as collateral for a loan, he offers titles to a fleet of merchant ships; he doesn't mention that the reason he has the titles is that his former employer didn't care about them any more, said merchant ships having been sunk by a storm). He also gets obsessed with chasing fame and fortune without really considering how his actions impact those around him. He's mostly well-meaning, though, and his attitude generally can be described as "if people didn't enjoy being fooled, they wouldn't come to see my show."
  • The character of Bytes from The Elephant Man was based on Sir Frederick Treves' portrayal of Tom Norman as a cruel drunk who ruthlessly exploited his acts. Norman refuted this by stating he provided Joseph Merrick, called "John" in the film, and others with the means to make money.
  • The Dust Factory: In the center of the Dust Factory is a circus pavilion whose Ringmaster is a figure of some authority and dread, because all who dwell in the Dust Factory must eventually visit his circus and make a leap of faith that will determine if they live or die.
  • In Moulin Rouge!, Harold Zidler, owner of the titular nightclub, is a variation of this trope. He's the host and emcee of the Moulin Rouge, and wears the traditional ringmaster outfit of black pants, a white shirt, long red jacket, and a top hat while carrying a whip. The Moulin Rouge, given its wild decadence and acts, is something of a circus. The "repulsive" aspect arises from Harold's other profession: he's essentially a pimp for all of the women who work for him and eagerly sells them to the highest bidder to make a profit. He also keeps Satine's fatal tuberculosis a secret from her and everyone on the staff for nearly the whole film (which, given that TB is highly contagious, likely got other people sick, too), and only tells her about it when she's threatening to leave the club forever. It's somewhat downplayed in that Harold does seem to show genuine affection for Satine and his staff; plus, he's so wonderfully over the top that it's hard not to like him.

    Literature 
  • Slagar the Cruel from the Redwall novel Mattimeo disguises himself and his minions as a travelling circus to infiltrate Redwall Abbey and kidnap its children. Slagar takes on the role of a Stage Magician, but still acts as the ringleader of the circus.
  • The novel Ghost Story by Peter Straub features a creepy Ringmaster as part of the horror that descends upon the town of Milburn.
  • Downplayed in Lionboy. The series features circus lions who are abused. The circus' ringmaster isn't evil, but he is kind of apathetic to the lions' abuse. The lion tamer is the one who's really evil.
  • Captain Aag, the cruel ringmaster who mistreats his animals and curses Luka's father in Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie.
  • Mr. Dark, the ringmaster of the carnival in Something Wicked This Way Comes, is a creepy, seemingly charming monster who is out to steal the souls of the townfolk the carnival lures in. He's also the Trope Image for this page.
  • The Circus of Doctor Lao: Dr. Lao falls into the "morally ambiguous" category, as he's not overly worried about some of the more interesting and permanent changes (like petrification) that happen to his customers. 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, being a Lighter and Softer Film of the Book, averts this.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Great Space Coaster has the aptly-named M.T. Promises, who spends much of the series continually pursuing Baxter the Clown to recapture and send back to slave away in his circus again.
  • In an episode of Johnny Bago Johnny gets blackmailed into working for a travelling circus by its evil ringmaster, who is blackmailing all the employees into working for free.
  • The Wesen carnival in Grimm has a particularly abusive Lowen ringmaster. He forces his employees to Woge so often that they begin to lose control and he murders at least two people to protect his assets. His employees eventually snap and light him on fire.
  • In the Doctor Who story "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy", the Ringmaster is one of the members of the circus who has willingly allied himself with the dark force that's taken it over. (The other is, of course, the Chief Clown.)
  • Averted in one of the first episodes of ABC's revival of Columbo, in which the detective confronts the villain with the evidence against him, and is suddenly dressed as a ringmaster, takes a bow, straightens up and is in his normal raincoat again.
  • In Ace Lightning, Big Bad Lord Fear is the leader of the Carnival of Doom.
  • Papa Lazeru from The League of Gentlemen fits this to a tee. He's an evil ringmaster who plans to turn people into circus animals. It doesn't help that his appearance has a slight hint of Monster Clown.
  • Blood Drive: Julian Slink, the MC of the eponymous race, dresses like this.
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017): In "The Carnivorous Carnival", Count Olaf is persuaded by Madame Lulu to perform for the carnival. He chooses to take on the costume and role of a ringmaster. Although he does a surprisingly good job of disguising his evil intentions while in the role, he still acts very rude to the freaks and performers. It's worth noting that the idea Olaf becoming a ringmaster was created for this series, and didn't happen in the original book.
  • Whodunnit? (UK): Jack Brandon, the asshole Victim of the Week in "Final Trumpet". On inheriting sole control of the circus when his half-brother dies, he immediately the gathers performers and gloats of his intention to sell the circus rather than divide it equally among the performers as his brother had wanted. When being interviewed the performers say that Brandon was a compulsive gambler who was up to his ears in debt, and Aerolita and Nola indicate that he was constantly leching after the female performers.
  • American Horror Story: Freak Show: Fraulein Elsa Mars is a Deconstructed Character Archetype of this trope, and a rare female example to boot. Elsa is the owner and emcee of the "Cabinet of Curiosities," one of the last traveling freak shows and circuses in the country; she's also a White-Dwarf Starlet and Small Name, Big Ego "actress" who insists on performing as the headliner of the show. She's not above using dirty tricks, bribery, and less-than-savory tactics to recruit performers, and is also unafraid to (literally) get blood on her hands when the situation calls for it. However, Elsa has a very good reason for all of this—as a young actress in Germany, she agreed to appear in a movie that turned out to a violent snuff film in which her legs were chopped off. She now uses prosthetic legs in secret, and is horribly embarrassed by her past. In addition, Elsa, for all of her many flaws, does genuinely love and care for the "freaks" in her care, and creates a gentle family environment for each and every one of them. That compassion results in a true Earn Your Happy Ending moment for her—it turns out that the freaks, after dying, enter a personalized Heaven that looks exactly like the Cabinet of Curiosities, as it was the only place on Earth that they truly felt like home. When Elsa dies, the group greets her warmly, and she's given the eternal reward of getting to be the headliner every night for a cheering crowd.

    Music 
  • Miracle of Sound pretends to be one of these in his song "Call of Duty Circus", in which he presents the people who play Call of Duty as freaks at a Circus of Fear.
  • Bo Burnham's song "Welcome to the Internet" uses this trope to satirize the addictive, amoral, entertainment-at-any-cost aspect of... well, the internet.
  • The current page quote comes from "The Greatest Show Unearthed" by Creature Feature, which opens with a creepy ringmaster announcing the oddities found at the eponymous circus.
  • The narrator of the Emerson, Lake & Palmer song "Karn Evil 9 (1st Impression)," who takes no small measure of delight in describing the carnival's very strange exhibits.

    Pinball 
  • Cirqus Voltaire contains a mode where a villainous Ringmaster appears, and must be defeated. There are six of them that can appear in a playthrough- four must be defeated to start the Wizard Mode, a fifth must be unmasked during the Wizard Mode, and a sixth can be fought to start the super difficult Ringmaster Battle.

    Podcasts 

    Tabletop Games 
  • Villains & Vigilantes adventure Organized Crimes. The Emirc Ring Circus is a criminal circus that includes the Organizer's superpowered minions. During the day the Organizer plays the role of the circus ringmaster.
  • The card game Gloom has Darius Dark, the Ringmaster of "Dark's Den of Deformity." The Flavor Text clearly implies he is evil, the art shows him to be highly repulsive, and the nature of the game ensures his unhappiness.
  • A Pyramid article had a GURPS Circus of Fear (Circus Maximus), led by Maximus, a possibly immortal telepathic giant who, depending on the setting, might also be an evil magician or Snake Person.
  • Turns up as a character template in the Vampire: The Masquerade Tzimisce Clanbook (1st ed): titled "The Carnivorous Carny," the character is a Sabbat packleader posing as the ringmaster of a small travelling freakshow - really just a convenient means for the pack to infiltrate Camarilla territory. Of course, because the character's a Tzimisce, the freaks on display are almost certainly fleshcrafted ghouls. Oh, and the reason why this character's called "Carnivorous?" Quite apart from the fact that he grew up as part of a Cannibal Clan of revenants, the character has a habit of keeping bits of human flesh in mason jars; as a vampire, he can't eat, of course, but he can chew.
  • The Old World of Darkness crossover game Midnight Circus features one of these in the form of Devyn Cavendish, the current ringmaster of the eponymous circus and the Big Bad of the game. A Nephandi mage, he's ensured that the circus has remained a source of corruption and anguish through the world since the fifteenth century, and guaranteed a steady tribute of human souls to the circus's patrons - Apophis and the Wyrm. When not introducing the various performances, he can usually be found at Fortuna's Wheel, screwing over gambling addicts and convincing them to sign over their souls.
  • At least two different official Dungeons & Dragons adventures featured traveling carnivals headed by evil wizards. Generally the evil plan was to turn innocent people and snooping adventurers into freaks. Adventurers learned quickly that circuses mean trouble and ringmasters are to be killed on sight.

    Theatre 
  • The Leading Player from Pippin reveals themself to be this as the show goes on. It starts when Catherine goes off-script to sing her own song, and ends with them trying to convince the eponymous Pippin to commit suicide by self-immolation. When that fails, they tries to pick someone from the audience, before angrily storming off and taking the troupe with him. But then Leo walks up on stage and the Player gladly comes back to take him.

    Video Games 
  • Breath of Fire II features a traveling circus that pops up every so often with an imprisoned Grass Man as its star attraction. The ringmaster eventually grows frustrated over the Grass Man's waning popularity and plans a blood show where the Grass Man will be fed to a monster. As your party is in need of a Grass Man's aid, they intervene and are given the choice of paying a very large sum of money or going on a sidequest to find a replacement for the bloody act. No matter what you choose, you'll eventually have to fight the ringmaster, who turns into a mammoth demon.
  • Ludwig von Tokkentakker, the Big Bad of CarnEvil, who runs the eponymous Amusement Park of Doom.
  • In Disney's Villains' Revenge, the aforementioned ringmaster from Dumbo goes through quite a bit of Adaptational Villainy. Not only does he turn his own circus into a Circus of Fear, he forces Dumbo to perform the same humiliating tricks over and over, possibly forever. It's also worth noting that he looks more like a Dastardly Whiplash in this game than in the original movie.
  • In the Circus Train level of McDonald's Treasure Land Adventure, Birdie is captured by the Ringmaster Wolf, who presumably captured her so he could force her to perform in his circus. Ronald rescues Birdie, and when he reaches the engine, he and the Ringmaster Wolf battle each other. After the battle, the engine crashes into a set of buffers, and the impact of the crash causes Ronald and the Ringmaster Wolf to fall. Birdie catches Ronald to return the favor for saving her, while the Ringmaster Wolf continues falling, until he lands in a pile of boxes.
  • The Big Bad and Final Boss of the Haunted Museum game Shh...! Welcome to Frightfearland is a Monster Clown ringmaster who kidnapped 100 people and kept them hostage at his Amusement Park of Doom.
  • Flotsam in Dark Chronicle one of the first bosses Max fights. He is the leader of a travelling Circus of Fear, and gets worse when he becomes a cyborg.
  • Mesmeralda from the Skylanders series is an anthropomorphic spider who runs a circus with her chorus of creepy puppets. She is one of the most hammy villains in the games, even getting her own Villain Song before her boss battle in SWAP Force! To top it all off, she's got Glowing Eyes of Doom and a suit that's Red and Black and Evil All Over!
  • Lemmy Koopa takes this role in Paper Mario: Color Splash, running The Emerald Circus and its troupe of Elite Mooks trained specifically to fight Mario while putting on a show for the audience. As he is also both a Stage Magician and an actual wizard who combines spells with sleight of hand and misdirection, this makes him one of the most dangerous of the Koopalings.

    Visual Novels 
  • Dio, the "fifth-generation ringleader" in Virtue's Last Reward, complete with the usual marching-band-reject-with-top-hat costume. Unlike almost everything else about the game, Dio's crapulence isn't a spoiler — he's a Jerk with a Heart of Jerk from the word "go". Unusually for the Zero Escape franchise, he's just as evil as he appears to be.
  • Inverted with Russel Berry in the case "Turnabout Big Top" of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Justice For All, who was a Benevolent Boss that everyone else in the circus loved despite their disputes with each other. He took in Acro and Bat as acrobats when their parents abandoned them (and continued to help and support them after they were both injured and unable to work for him), and he pays the performers' wages with his own money whenever the circus is struggling. Makes you wonder why anyone would want to murder him. Turns out he wasn't the intended victim.

    Webcomics 
  • Sparklecare: Downplayed with Lizerd, the ringmaster of the Big Frightening Loud Circus Carnival of Death, who seems more careless and apathetic than downright malicious.

    Web Original 

    Web Video 
  • Jim Sterling, the creator and host of the Jimquisition, changed their style to that of a carnival ringmaster in 2017, feeling that their old style of a comically egotistical fascist dictator had become too uncomfortable in light of the political climate at the time.
  • Mario Party DS Anti Piracy: Played with. DJ Hallyboo is an evil Expy of MC Ballyhoo, the friendly ringmaster character from Mario Party 8. Despite being labelled a "DJ" (likely to help differentiate him from Ballyhoo), Hallyboo still wears an outfit resembling that of a circus ringmaster more than a DJ. He is portrayed as a creepy Humanoid Abomination who kills Luigi in the game, and eventually Joey in the real world.
  • The Walten Files: Boozoo. A first for a Five Nights at Freddy's inspired work, it seems.

    Western Animation 
  • Lord Fear from the episode "Circus of Fear" of The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy. He is the ringmaster of a circus in the Underworld, and when Grim brings the eponymous duo there, Fear is amazed, because they are real live humans. Grim takes advantage of this, handing Billy and Mandy over to Lord Fear so they can perform in his circus.
  • In The New Adventures of Speed Racer, Caligula P. Barnum, a wealthy businessman from the future, oversees the deadly Battle Races, which he wants Speed to compete in.
  • T.W. Barker from Sonic Boom. Although not quite as dangerous as Eggman, Barker is an extremely cunning Con Man with two bears dressed as clowns as well as some robots he ordered from Dr. Eggman as Mooks. Apparently, he's so bad, his other performers ran away from the circus! He reappears in the episode "Don't Judge Me", in which he has inexplicably become an Amoral Attorney. Inexplicably?
  • A rare female example: Vivian Vixen from Johnny Bravo. She not only kidnaps Jungle Boy and forces him to perform in her circus, but also seduces the title character into helping her.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender. In "Appa's Lost Days", Appa gets captured by a circus troupe and is subjected to torture by its firebending ringmaster. Said ringmaster is overall cruel and sadistic. Fortunately, Appa escapes on his own.
  • The Dragon in the Loonatics Unleashed episode "The World Is My Circus" calls himself The Ringmaster. His corrupt circus converts stray children into "galactic oddities" that perform for the crowds under duress. The repulsiveness is cemented by Tim Curry as his voice actor. Yikes.
  • The Tiny Toon Adventures episode, "Sawdust and Toonsil" has a ringmaster named Silas Wonder as its antagonist. The episode starts with his circus coming to Acme Acres, and him inviting Buster, Babs, and Plucky to see his "Wonderful Wonderpieces". Everything goes downhill from there. He captures rare and exotic animals, and is shown to horribly mistreat them (practically poaching them) and extort them for profit. He is also the only Tiny Toon Adventures villain to get Killed Off for Real, as at the end of the episode, his train falls off a cliff, and the resulting crash sends him to Heck, where The Devil treats him the same way he treated the animals.
  • Freakshow, the human ringmaster of the otherwise all ghost circus, The Circus Gothica, from Danny Phantom. He uses his magic staff to brainwash ghosts into being his servants, entertaining the masses by day, and then stealing from them after the show.
  • The Betty Boop short "Boop Oop a Doop" features Betty as a circus performer. The ringmaster of this circus begins to lust after her, and starts making advances on her. When Betty's friend Koko the Clown tries to stop the ringmaster, he starts resorting to violence. Fortunately, Koko wins the fight.
  • The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo had a ghostly ringmaster named Professor Phantazmo featured as one of the 13 ghosts from the Chest of Demons that Scooby and friends had to recapture. He was faced and returned to the Chest of Demons in the episode "The Ghouliest Show on Earth".
  • The villain of the Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa episode "Circus Daze" was a ringmaster named The Great Bovini.
  • The Dennis the Menace episode, "Circus Berserkus" features a wicked ringmaster who tries to sabotage the circus that Dennis, Joey, and a reluctant Mr. Wilson go to as revenge for getting fired from it. His plans include releasing a live bear and a live tiger from their cages and cutting the ropes to the tent to cause it to collapse, but all of those plans are foiled thanks to Dennis and Joey's antics.
  • In the Super Mario World episode "Send in the Clown", King Koopa has Big Mouth and Kootie Pie set up a circus as a ruse for the cavepeople. Big Mouth plays the ringmaster, and he loses his temper when the mooks make him the Butt-Monkey in the acts.
  • Strawberry Shortcake: In "Festival of the Fillies", Licorice Whip kidnaps Honey Pie Pony for his horse circus, where he exploits horses for money by making them do dangerous tricks.

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