The Circus Gives Me The Willies

The next season of American Horror Story premieres tomorrow, and it’s set at a 1950s freak show. Now, that show has some great writing and stellar acting, but freak show? Like a circus, but worse? It doesn’t even take a  good show to make that scary – you could take a straight-up camcorder to Barnum and Bailey’s, record everything as it happens, and I’d still get the creeps.

Like every normal and decent person, the circus gives me the willies. How could it not?

I don’t remember much that happened at the circus the first time I went, but I remember the feeling. Like the first time you try hard liquor or watch a Tarantino movie (just me?), it was a mix of disappointment, confusion, and more than a little judgment: “Am I supposed to like this? Does anyone?”

The main problem with the circus, of course, is clowns. I discovered this early on. During my early childhood my sister had a clown doll, even though she seems better than the kind of person who would own a clown doll. When the neighborhood boys used it as a prop in a movie about evil toys that come to life, and they broke it by punching it repeatedly in its stupid, leering plastic face, I didn’t lose any sleep over it. Or rather I DID lose sleep, but only because if any toy would rise from the garbage dump, find its way back to my house, and go Chuckie on my entire family as we slept, it would have been that damn clown doll.

“I hate you and don’t want you to be happy” – anyone who would give this to a child

Well into my teen years, my oldest brother would walk past my open bedroom door, and if I was reading quietly or doing my homework, he would fix his face into a wide, open-grinned clown’s smile, go dead behind the eyes, and sing that horrible circus song all slow and drawn-out, like a haunted record. You know the one, it’s like the theme song to nightmares: doo-doo-doodle-oodle ooo-doo-doo.

As an 8-year-old who was equally into comedy and yesteryear – I blame Little Women and ’90s Comedy Central standup – I remember pondering what people used to think was funny in olden times. I hardcore puzzled over it, until deciding in a moment of clarity that it was probably, like, people falling down and stuff. One day, I even asked my mother what people thought was funny before t.v. “I don’t know, probably clowns, right?,” she answered.

I wasn’t sure whether to stop trusting my own mother, people from the 1800s, or both. Because creepiness aside, clowns aren’t even funny. Sure, their faces are plastered into motionless, permanent happiness and surprise – but so are the Real Housewives, and nobody thinks they’re funny. At least not intentionally. And they can blow up balloons? So can the pimply teen who works at your nearest Party City, but the teen will not haunt your nightmares besides. I can’t even think of what else clowns do. Pile too many people into one car? Wear weird clothing that I don’t quite understand? Display boundless energy? Groups of teen girls do all of those things – and while we’re at it, I’m actually terrified of groups of teen girls, too.

What’s worse is, clowns aren’t just at the circus. Did you know that some mega-churches have “clown ministries?” (Mega churches are like regular churches, but with big projection screens, way more merch, and sometimes they sell smoothies: so basically, the circus of churches). If you ever want to teach your child that religion is a joke that isn’t funny, drop them off at clown ministry while you guzzle lattes at the megachurch cafe. If my parents had taken me to clown ministry, I would have bowed out of organized religion before I hit second grade.


Clowns aren’t the only bad thing about the circus. The overall ambiance is just scuzzy. Whether you go to a circus in a large arena like I did, or in a tent like cute people from olden times, it somehow manages to seem dirty and – even though the whole point of the circus is that it rolls from town to town – like it’s been there forever. The circus looks like it would smell like baseball field dust-dirt, ground-up peanut shells, and cigarette butts.

And that’s before you even into the (non-clown) entertainment. Most circuses are lorded over by a megalomaniac svengali in striped pants, a top hat, and sequins – the ringmaster. This a-hole tells you where to look, what to do, and is second only to clowns in creepyness. The second Google suggestion for ringmaster is “evil.” The first is ICP, and as fascinated as I am by the informercials for the Gathering of the Juggalos, that doesn’t exactly say “family fun.” If the theme song to nightmares is that circus music box song, and the villain is clowns, then the narrator is the ringmaster, like an evil Kevin Arnold.

I’m not even going to get into it, but the animals at the circus aren’t doing awesome, either. No beautiful, majestic living thing should be forced to live and travel with clowns. That’s just cruel.

What’s left. Acrobats? Acrobats are okay, I guess. They’re talented and they work hard, and that’s great. But at the same time I’m pretty bendy but you don’t see me wearing head-to-toe Lycra and gallivanting with clowns and ringmasters. Tightrope acts and trapeze artists are cool, I suppose, but at the end of the day they are athletic, coordinated adults hanging out on playground equipment and I don’t need to pay $25 to see that. And that’s before buying a glow necklace, popcorn, circus peanuts … oh yeah, circus peanuts. Blech.

Of course, modern circuses don’t even have the most terrifying part of the spectacle: the freak show. This scene, permanently burned into my brain, suggests that they were horrifying:

I will be tuning into AHS tomorrow, and I expect that it will have my pants scared off. Not because the show always is right on the line of “can’t stop watching” and “can’t bear to look at this” – though it is – but because even without two-headed girls and bearded ladies, the circus gives me the willies.



8 thoughts on “The Circus Gives Me The Willies

  1. My hometown’s a circus town (heyyyyy Florida) and for a while they had statues of clowns on Main Street. I couldn’t tell you anything that happened in Sarasota during those years, because I never went downtown ever.


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