We here at Nightmare on Flim Street know that few things in life are creepier on film than a carnival. The setting and nomadic lifestyle of these traveling amusement parks first graced the screen with sinister visions of terror in Tod Browning’s (Dracula, 1931) Freaks in 1932. The history of Tod Browning’s Freaks would make for an interesting story all by itself; however, since many debate the true genre in which that masterpiece resides, I decided to omit it from this list.
Now that the history is out of the way, let’s walk up the counter, purchase our tickets, and walk through the brightly lit gate. It’s time to experience the creepiest of the creepy traveling scare-fests that we all love. And to celebrate the upcoming release of It: Chapter 2 and the Derry Canal Days, here are the Top 10 creepiest carnivals in horror.
10. Final Destination 3 (2006)
While not creepy in the same way as some of the other films featured on the list, we cannot deny that deep down we all have a fear of getting stuck on a rollercoaster; especially those found at a carnival or fair. The question swirls in my head often, as I’m standing in line, “How could something built so fast be safe?” Well, writer-director James Wong (The X-Files) and Glen Morgan (The X-Files) took that fear to the next level with the opening of Final Destination 3. Being a franchise that is known for its creative opening visions of death, in my opinion, it is part 3 that has the most tension-filled and impactful vision of death. The slow climb to the top of the rollercoaster is still goosebump-inducing all these years later. Final Destination 3 makes the top 10 by taking one of deepest fears and portraying it in brutally chilling fashion.
9. The Devil’s Carnival (2012)
What creepy carnival top 10 would be complete without a trip to Hell, and a Hell that is unlike any you have seen before? Director Darren Lynn Bousman and writer Terrance Zdunich the duo that brought us 2008’s Repo! The Genetic Opera returns to give us a musical hell that is every bit the fun and creepy time that Repo! was. The Devil’s Carnival follows our three main characters who, upon meeting tragic demises, find themselves in a carnival in Hell. What follows is a creepily fun, unique, and fresh spin on the souls forced to relive their sins trope. If you like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Repo! The Genetic Opera, check it out.
8. Hell Fest (2018)
Hell Fest is a horror them park (or carnival) that travels the country around Halloween. Now, as a horror fan, this sounds awesome! A traveling horror theme park, with sections devoted to different horror genres? Sign me up! If the horror them park plot wasn’t already enough to make Hell Fest a worthy addition to the Top 10, the appearance of The Other (although he is never called this) turns this creepy carnival flick into a slasher movie. With some fantastic kills and one the best-looking carnival designs ever put on film, Hell Fest is a fun, worthy investment if you are looking for something to kick-start your Halloween mood.
7. Rob Zombie’s 31 (2016)
Director Rob Zombie (The Devils Reject’s, 2005) had previously dabbled with the idea of carnivals and freak shows with Captain Spaulding’s “Museum of Monsters & Madmen” in 2003’s House of a 1000 Corpses. However, it wasn’t until 31 (2016) that Zombie fully embraced the terrors of the carnival. Much like House before it, 31 features five carnies who are kidnapped and forced to survive in a compound known as Murderworld. 31 features everything you love from a Rob Zombie film: a retro setting, creepy and demented characters, and over-the-top gore. Watch 31 for Richard Brake’s (3 From Hell, 2019) movie stealing performance as Doom-Head.
6. Blood Fest (2018)
Director Owen Egerton’s (Mercy Black, 2019) Blood Fest pulls every trope card in the deck and still manages to pull off one the funniest and most self-aware films of 2018. Much like Hell Fest (released only a month apart), Blood Fest focuses on a horror theme park (or carnival) set over Halloween, and thankfully that is where the similarities end. What follows is a hilariously fun horror comedy that features every horror trope from the last twenty years. If you are in the mood to laugh while still getting your share of gore, I highly recommend Blood Fest.
5. US (2019)
Jordan Peele’s (Get Out, 2017) US uses the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, featured in the classic The Lost Boys (1987) to stage it’s opening terror. Peele, like other directors featured on this list, has taken the real fear of getting lost as a child and turned into something even more horrific. When Adelaide wanders off from her parents, we are terrified as we watch her curiosity set the stage for the horrors to come. US does for halls of mirrors what The Shining (1980) did for hedge mazes.
4. Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)
Killer Klowns from Outer Spaces, while also being filmed at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, trades its traditional carnival setting for a giant-sized circus tent that is secretly the alien’s mothership. What Killer Klowns lacks in creepiness, it makes for in fun. Klowns tells the story of Aliens who have come to earth to turn humans into food. They do so by storing humans in cotton candy cocoons, with popcorn guns, and acid pies. Killer Klowns might be the perfect movie to take the edge off after watching a certain clown on the big screen. This cult classic is one of my all-time favorites. Highly recommended.
3. Carnival of Souls (1962)
Director Herik Harvey’s only feature film, Carnival of Souls (1962) is a surreal experience that plays out like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone or even a David Lynch movie. Carnival of Souls is the story of Mary Henry, who after an accident, finds herself drawn to an abandoned carnival while being stalked by a mysterious stranger. To say more would only spoil the surprises. Featuring a haunting score by Gene Moore and gorgeous visuals, Carnival of Souls is an underrated masterpiece that is required viewing for horror fans and film lovers.
2. The Funhouse (1981)
Tobe Hooper’s (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974) The Funhouse is one of the most underrated slashers of the 1980s. It is set in a carnival where four teenagers decide to spend the night, only to be stalked by a killer wearing a Frankenstein mask. Much like Chainsaw, The Funhouse plays with your expectations and fears instead of over-relying on the gore that was common in the early eighties slasher films. The setting, cast, and score are all top-notch. A fun note–if you have watched the movie and enjoyed it, Dean Koontz (yes that Dean Koontz) wrote the novelization for the film, it adds more backstory and is worth a read for fans of the film.
1. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
People often ask me what is the movie that scared me the most as a kid, and I always answer Something Wicked This Way Comes. The film based on the novel by Ray Bradbury’s (Fahrenheit 451,1966) is the perfect creepy carnival film. Wicked is a dark film that is full of heart and it is a true horror treasure that can be enjoyed by the young and the old. Many of the children watching will miss out on the undertones of greed and temptation; instead, they will be captivated by the terrifying adventure that Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade embark on to stop Mr. Dark from consuming their town.
Looking back, I still find it difficult to believe that Something Wicked This Way Comes was released by Disney. As autumn closes in, seek out this masterpiece because Mr. Dark and his traveling Pandemonium Carnival are coming to town, and time is running out.
And don’t forget to visit Derry Canal Days for a funhouse, hall of mirrors, and other terrifying frights! It: Chapter 2 hits theatres September 6th.