Circus of Spooks: A Creepy Carnival Primer to Get You Hyped for ‘American Horror Story’ Season 4

Despite Ryan Murphy denying rumors in January that American Horror Story’s fourth season would have a circus/carnival theme, AHS writer and co-producer Douglas Petrie recently told the Nerdist Writer’s Panel that the creators of all that predictive fan art were, in fact, correct (at least, according to Petrie, “very roughly” so). We had previously learned that Season 4, Jessica Lange’s last (nooo!), would cast Murphy’s muse as a Marlene Dietrich type and would be set in two time periods, predominantly the 1950s.

While some folks are busy rooting for clues (could Lange be playing Balenciaga model Brigitte Höss, whose father was “the monster of Auschwitz”? Or a German circus ringleader rebranding her show after World War II?), others of us (myself included) are still a little sore over the messy and unsatisfying ending of Season 3’s Coven, and hoping for some kind of redemption. Coven traded a lot of the character complexity and uncompromisingly brutal plotlines of the first two seasons for levity, and Murphy has implied that the comedy will remain (Coven was, after all, the show’s most successful installment).

The first season’s strength was a small core cast — the Murder House family — and the intimate view we had of their lives as the season quickly devolved into something shockingly gruesome; Asylum one-upped the premiere season by constantly treading into offensive waters (forcible breast-feeding! Nun rape! Evil Nazis!) and inserting absolutely ridiculous sequences that were still totally chilling in context, but its boat occasionally sprang a leak when it added too many moving parts to its fascinating equation (I’m talking about the aliens here). Coven, well, there were some fabulous performances and it often made for good water-cooler discussions if you were in the right company, but it never quite made an impact on me the way the first two seasons had, seeming to cater to an imaginary female horror fan who couldn’t handle gore without a giggle. If I weren’t so loyal to it, I would have been mildly offended by the impression — which I may have arrived at in error, but I don’t think I have — that it was trying to tame itself to be more palatable to a female viewer’s tastes, a viewer that would be drawn in by the concept of a mostly female cast, the appearance of Stevie Nicks, and the corruption of the witchy sisterhood.

Anyway: the circus. This is, obviously, a great place for a horror story to begin. If the national clown shortage means anything (besides how ready we are for the It remake), it’s that we are now so afraid of circus performers that we’re driving them out of business. The modern circus has its origins in the 18th century when Philip Astley, an English riding instructor, staged a horse show with interludes by acrobats and clowns; from there, it spread to the U.S., and 90 years later fell into the hands of P.T. Barnum. Barnum augmented the circus concept with “educational” crowd-pleasers like exotic fauna and feats of strength, and the attraction expanded to include three rings instead of one. An interesting theory regarding the next AHS theme is that it may feature Munich’s Circus Krone, a massive family-run circus located in the Circus Krone Building that was destroyed by aerial bombs in 1944 and rebuilt in 1950.

But you don’t need World War II to be afraid of the circus. It’s plenty terrifying on its own merits. Just to jog your memory before I go tap my fingers until AHS’s premiere, here are a few reminders of why.

Freaks (1932)

Real circus performers. Really old movie. Scary laughter. You don’t feel me? Rob Zombie & Co. break it down here.

Circus of Horrors (1960)

This is the super-terrifying opening scene of a movie that blends the circus with plastic surgery, the other most terrifying subject in the world.

Carnival of Souls (1962)

Scary because of the omnipresent organ music (carnival soundtracks, man — they get to you).

Vampire Circus (1972)

This is a terrible movie, but every list needs an evil circus panther.

The Funhouse (1981) 

Because what could go wrong when you smoke weed and take a trip on a dark ride, besides everything? (Seriously, don’t do this.)

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Based on a novel by Ray Bradbury (who also wrote the screenplay), this movie follows two kids who visit Mr. Dark’s traveling carnival and, well, wish they hadn’t. The reliably weird circus music, Dust Witch, and (most of all) the spiders will keep you away from mobile entertainment tents in the offseason forever.

Santa Sangre (1989)

I don’t know if it’s the armless people or what they did to the elephant that gets me about this one, but Santa Sangre kind of sums up what can be scary about the circus as a child: the sensory overload. Trying to parse out what your young mind has taken in at the circus is a complex problem, especially if you happen to see someone mutilate another person’s genitals.

Carnivàle (2003-05) 

This is a personal choice from someone who was once stuck on a broken Ferris wheel during a thunderstorm and has not enjoyed herself at a carnival since. I’ve thrown up at carnivals, cried out of fear at carnivals, and then I was stuck on the top of a metal wheel with lightning crashing down around me at a carnival. I’m sweating just writing this. When I got off the Ferris wheel, I was driven home by my friend’s mom to find that my childhood home’s driveway was on fire. Carnivals are where masochists go on Saturday nights.

I could go on forever. These clowns, that clown; these real horrific circus accidents and this floor that “come[s] alive” while “blood-bursting and vomit-spurting clown vendors” serve you refreshments. But I won’t, because I can’t. It’s too ripe a topic, and I am just a girl, standing in front of a clown, asking him not to murder her (or barf all over her sweatshirt). Do it justice, AHS, or the multi-talented elephant gets it.

Filed Under: TV, American Horror Story, Ryan Murphy