Freak Shows: Come one, come all to the Scariest Show On Earth!

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Lon Chaney in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924)

Last night FX premiered the new season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY. The award-winning horror anthology’s latest incarnation is called FREAK SHOW and it’s set in Florida during the 1950s at a circus sideshow where strange goings-on take place in and outside of the Big Top. The show’s creators, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, have admitted in recent interviews that they found inspiration for the new season in two classic horror films, Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932) and Herk Harvey’s CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) but circuses and carnivals have long been a staple of horror cinema and director Tod Browning used the sideshow as a setting for numerous uncanny films before he made FREAKS. With Shocktober upon us it seems as good a time as any to showcase some of my favorite horrific or just plain odd and unusual films with scary clowns and sideshow performers that paved the way for AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW. So step right up ladies and gents! Tickets are free for today’s main attraction! Thrills, chills and rare delights await all who dare to enter!

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HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924)
Nobody has embodied the dramatic and often horrific world of the cinematic circus performer better than Lon “The Man of a Thousand Faces” Chaney. In some of the Chaney’s most memorable films he’s played crazed clowns, armless circus ‘freaks’ and sideshow ventriloquists that would easily be at home in AMERICAN HORROR STORY. In Victor Sjöström’s HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924), Chaney plays a wronged man who joins a circus and acts out his humiliation as a clown. Like most of the silent films I’m going to mention, this isn’t a typical horror film but Chaney’s clown is a horrific creation and his maniacal laugh has inspired countless imitators. He went on to play another disturbed clown in LAUGH CLOWN LAUGH (1925), which also takes place in a circus setting.

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THE UNHOLY THREE (1925)
This early silent Tod Browning film features a trio of sideshow performers, a ventriloquist (Lon Chaney), a strongman (Victor McLaglen) and a little person (Harry Earles) who turn to a violent life of crime after leaving the circus. Harry Earles would go on to star in Browning’s FREAKS as the love spurned Hans. The film was so popular that it was remade as a “talkie’ in 1930 (poster featured above) and featured Lon Chaney’s only talking performance.

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THE UNKNOWN (1927)
This unusual thriller was also directed by Tod Browning and stars Lon Chaney as a knife-throwing sideshow performer called Alonzo the Armless who falls madly in love with the ringmaster’s beautiful daughter (Joan Crawford). Unfortunately their romance comes a to a strange and bloody end thanks to unwanted interference from Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry), the sideshow’s strongman.

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THE SHOW (1927)
This is another noteworthy Tod Browning melodrama with horror overtones much like THE UNKNOWN and FREAKS. It features two circus performers (played by John Gilbert and Renée Adorée) who get caught up in murder scheme involving a gangster (Lionel Barrymore) and his girlfriend (Gertrude Short). The headless circus act is really something to scream about!

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THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928)
Conrad Veidt delivered one of his most memorable performances here as Gwynplaine, a man whose face is horribly disfigured by gypsies giving him a grinning mask-like appearance. He survives the ordeal by performing as a clown in a sort of sideshow with his childhood companion, a blind girl named Dea (Mary Philbin). This is another silent melodrama with horrific overtones and it also happens to feature Olga Baclanova who appeared in FREAKS as the trapeze artist, Cleopatra.

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THE CIRCUS QUEEN MURDER (1933)
New York police commissioner Thatcher Colt (Adolphe Menjou) finds himself caught up in an attempted murder case involving a couple of acrobats (Greta Nissen and Dwight Frye). The circus setting gives this interesting mystery a unique atmosphere and the unusual sideshow attractions include a group of cannibal musicians who may or may not be involved in the crime.

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THE MIND READER (1933)
Warren William stars in one of best roles here as a conman turned mind-reader in an effort to make a quick buck. As Chandra the Great, he swindles people out of their hard-earned money in a traveling sideshow he’s put together but his thieving pal Frank (Allen Jenkins). A budding romance with the lovely Sylvia (Constance Cummings) breaks up their working relationship and threatens to end Chandra the Great’s career but it’s sure fun watching him try to maneuver out of this slimy situation .

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FREAKS (1932)
This classic Tod Browning film doesn’t need any introduction from me but if you haven’t seen it do yourself a favor and correct that ASAP.

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NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947)
Edmund Goulding helmed this unusual and highly stylized noir featuring handsome Tyron Power as the moody Stanton Carlisle, another smooth-talking conman who convinces carnival attendees that he can communicate with the dead. When his plans to hit the big time with his wife Molly aka “The Death Defying Electra” (Coleen Gray) go awry, the hard drinking Stanton is forced to take a job as a sideshow geek where he bites the heads off of live chickens. Truly the stuff of nightmares!

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IT’S A SMALL WORLD (1950)
IT’S A SMALL WORLD tells the sad and strange tale of Harry Musk (Paul Dale), a little person who finds it difficult to survive and thrive in a world that’s not ready to accept him and his small stature. He eventually ends up involved with some criminals and briefly leads a life of crime before he’s caught by the police. Instead of sending him to prison for his crimes, a judge orders him to join a circus where he finds work and romance with another little person (Anne Sholter).

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CHAINED FOR LIFE (1952)
I initially wasn’t going to include CHAINED FOR LIFE due to the fact that I couldn’t remember any sideshow or carnival in the film but the more I thought about it the more I realized that this odd little low-budget crime drama should be on my list since I genuinely appreciate its offbeat charm. The film stars Daisy & Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who were real-life sideshow performers and originally appeared in Browning’s FREAKS. The Hilton Sisters have a popular vaudeville act but things get complicated when one of the sisters falls in love with a smooth talking stunt shooter named Andre (Mario Laval). When he’s caught cheating one of the sisters shoots him dead and the conjoined twins end-up in court accused of murder.

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CIRCUS OF HORRORS (1960)
This curious entry was directed by Sidney Hayers and benefits from being filmed at Billy Smart’s New World Circus in Britain. The plot revolves around a highly suspect plastic surgeon (Anton Diffring) who uses a traveling circus to mask his murderous intentions and unethical medical practices. As the body count escalates due to unexplained animal attacks and other horrific circus accidents, the authorities move in and attempt to put the squeeze on the mad doctor.

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NIGHT TIDE (1961)
Can you find love at the freak show? Dennis Hopper thinks so in this fascinating and haunting film directed by Curtis Harrington. The story revolves around a sailor (Hopper) who comes across a seaside sideshow while he’s on leave where he meets the beautiful and mysterious Mora “The Mermaid” (Linda Lawson). Mora dresses up as a mermaid to entertain customers but is it all just an act or is Mora actually one of the mysterious “Sea People” or mythical Sirens that lure men to their doom? This underrated little gem is sure to fascinate and entertain.

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CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)
This cult classic shouldn’t need any introduction from me but I will add that Herk Harvey’s brilliant film contains the scariest ‘carnival’ attraction I’ve ever encountered (the decaying Saltair Pavilion). But you can’t believe everything you see in this ghost haunted tale so tread carefully if you dare to venture further!

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PYRO . . . THE THING WITHOUT A FACE (1964)
Although the film’s better known under the title PYRO . . . THE THING WITHOUT A FACE, I think its original title, THE PHANTOM OF THE FERRIS WHEEL, is much more appropriate for this interesting thriller that begins and ends at a circus. The plot centers around an engineer (Barry Sullivan) who’s horribly disfigured and loses his family in a terrible fire set by his angry mistress (Martha Hyer). Afterward he takes refuge at a traveling circus where he can live a normal life surrounded by people who aren’t bothered by his odd appearance. The Spanish horror film has some surprising twists and turns and features a memorable but all-too brief appearance from the beautiful Soledad Miranda.

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PSYCHO CIRCUS aka CIRCUS OF FEAR (1966)
Based on a novel by Edgar Wallace, PSYCHO CIRCUS is an interesting little movie that begins with an armored car heist and quickly transforms into murder mystery (aka krimi film) that unfolds under the Big Top. The cast includes Suzy Kendall as the daughter of Christopher Lee, a hooded lion tamer who was baldy disfigured by his pets. Other noteworthy characters include a blackmailing little man ironically named Mr. Big (Skip Martin) and a highly suspicious knife thrower (Maurice Kaufmann) along with his lovely assistant (Margaret Lee). Also look for a brief appearance from a very young Klaus Kinski!

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BERSERK! (1967)
Joan Crawford stars as the devoted and domineering ringmistress of a traveling circus (much like Jessica Lange’s character in this season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY) hit by hard times when someone starts murdering tight-rope walkers. Is Joan deliberately sabotaging her own show or are more sinister forces at work? Crawford is in great show-stealing form here and BERSERK! like the above CIRCUS OF HORRORS, benefits from being shot on location at Billy Smart’s New World Circus, which was world famous for its animal acts at the time. Much of the movie is devoted to showing actual circus acts that were popular in 1967.

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7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1967)
Tony Randall delivers a tour de force performance here as the mysterious Dr. Lao, the ringmaster of a unique circus that’s just arrived in Abalone, Arizona to perform a two-night show. Dr. Lao introduces that troubled townsfolk who peek in his magical mirror to various monsters and soothsayers (Medusa, Merlin the Magician, the Loch Ness Monster, etc.). Advice is dished out and some valuable lessons are learned before Dr. Lao vanishes as quickly as he appeared. This is a light-hearted affair but I have a soft spot for the movie and decided to include it on my list due to a couple of moments that chilled me as a child (Medusa!) and the fact that it probably influenced some of the other films on my list, which I mention below.

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TORTURE GARDEN (1967)
The talented cinematographer Freddie Francis directed this horror anthology for Amicus films that takes place at a carnival sideshow run by the enigmatic Dr. Diablo (Burgess Meredith) who promises visitors (Jack Palance, Peter Cushing, Beverly Adams, etc.), “The greatest thrill you have ever had in your life!” Dr. Diablo turns out to be a much crueler version of Dr. Lao, who enjoys seeing his customers suffer.

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VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972)
This utterly unique and offbeat film released by Hammer Studios centers around the Circus of the Night, which is run by a group of freaky vampires headed by the allusive (Count Mitterhaus) and his minions. After the circus parks its wagons in the Austrian village of Stetl, the plague riddled villagers begin to die in strange and unexpected ways. The cast includes David Prowse (aka Darth Vader) as a strongman as well as Skip Martin who played another memorable little person on PSYCHO CIRCUS.

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THE MUTATIONS aka THE FREAK MAKER (1974)
Celebrated cinematographer Jack Cardiff directed this low-budget British horror film that’s been referred to as “The 70’s version of the cult classic FREAKS” and the two films do share some similarities. Donald Pleasence stars as a mad doctor engaged in some nasty experiments that turn unsuspecting victims into ‘freaks’ who end up working at a local carnival sideshow run by a man named Lynch (Tom Baker). The freaks are not happy about their awful predicament and they eventually rebel against their employer. THE MUTATIONS is utterly bizarre but oddly entertaining and like FREAKS, the film employed real sideshow performers including Willie Ingram, better known as “Popeye – The Man with the Elastic Eyes” who had the ability to push his eyes out of their socket.

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THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980)
This haunting film remains my favorite David Lynch effort due the stellar cinematography by Freddie Francis (director of the aforementioned film, TORTURE GARDEN) and heartbreaking performances from John Hurt as the long suffering John Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as his doctor, Frederick Treves. After rescuing The Elephant Man from the horrible living conditions at a freak show, the kindly but coolly professional doctor attempts to help him live a more normal and satisfying life. The transition isn’t easy but Merrick’s story is a difficult and fascinating tale about the life of an intelligent and thoughtful man who was able to overcome extreme disabilities. The horror in this film is personified by the judgmental monsters who treat John Merrick like a ‘freak’ instead of a human being with all too human feelings. (Note: Bright Lights Film Journal contributor C. Jerry Kutner pointed out to me on Facebook that the music from the film can be heard in the season premiere of AMERICAN HORROR STORY:FREAK SHOW.)

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THE FUNHOUSE (1981)
Tobe Hooper’s THE FUNHOUSE might not be as well-known as THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) but it has its own creepy charm. The film takes place at a dingy grime-filled carnival with questionable performers. When a group of hapless teenagers decide to secretly stay the night in the carnival’s funhouse, they endure the wrath of the demented carnival barker (Kevin Conway) and his son (Wayne Doba), a sideshow freak known as “Frankenstein’s Monster”. The body count is high in this fright filled film and it remains one of Hooper’s best.

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SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (1983)
Directed by Jack Clayton and based on one of Ray Bradbury’s most enduring novels which includes the memorable line, “First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.” (Note: It’s also a rare month for some of us girls!), this Walt Disney production remains one of the studios more adult and thoughtful films. The story centers around the arrival of Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival in a small Illinois town inhabited by two young boys (Vidal Peterson & Shawn Carson ). In many ways this is a darker version of THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO and like that film it can be enjoyed by all ages.

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SANTA SANGRE (1989)
I’m a great admirer of Alejandro Jodorowsky and this horrific tale of madness and murder is my favorite of his films. It demands a lot from viewers but it has great rewards. SANTA SANGRE is an incredibly photographed tale that explores the troubled life of Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky/Adan Jodorowsky), a child magician who grows up in the shadow of a circus managed by his father (Guy Stockwell),  a professional knife-thrower and mother (Blanca Guerra), a trapeze artist. When tragedy strikes, Fenix loses touch with reality and begins to violently act out his own devastation and disappointment. The circus is transformed into a dark and menacing place in Jodorowsky’s film filled with unimaginable horrors and illuminated by amazing moments of profound beauty.

Did I neglect to mention one of your favorite chill-inducing circus or carnival films with a memorable cast of sideshow characters? Feel free to share your recommendations below.

24 Responses Freak Shows: Come one, come all to the Scariest Show On Earth!
Posted By ratzkywatzky : October 10, 2014 6:22 am

Oh, what an amazing list!
Am I misunderstanding something, or does that Torture Garden poster say that it’s rated G?
And coincidentally I just turned off the TV on something that’s not on your list, although it really just has one scene that fits–the terrific human oddities tent in The Other.
Also, the novel The Circus of Dr. Lao is unjustly forgotten. It’s very funny, and not for kids (as I discovered, stumbling upon it as a kid after loving the movie.)

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 10, 2014 6:47 am

Glad you enjoyed it, ratzkywatzky and great call on THE OTHER. I love that movie but I had totally forgotten about the human oddities tent. I’m going to have to revisit it soon! As for the “G” rating, I believe this is a British poster so I’m not sure how their film ratings compared with ours in 1972? That said, it’s an Amicus film so it’s more moody & atmospheric than bloody. It also has a black sense of humor!

Posted By Doug : October 10, 2014 10:54 am

Thank you for this post, Kimberly! Timely for me, as I watched Dr. Lao again recently, and last night I ordered a book which
fits comfortably into this topic: “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn.
You mention Ray Bradbury-I just was checking the wiki to find the name of his book “The October Country” and I found this info:

“{Bradbury}attributed to two incidents his lifelong habit of writing every day. The first of these, occurring when he was three years old, was his mother’s taking him to see Lon Chaney’s performance in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.[18] The second incident occurred in 1932, when a carnival entertainer, one Mr. Electrico, touched the young man on the nose with an electrified sword, made his hair stand on end, and shouted, “Live forever!” Bradbury remarked, “I felt that something strange and wonderful had happened to me because of my encounter with Mr. Electrico…[he] gave me a future…I began to write, full-time. I have written every single day of my life since that day 69 years ago.”

Posted By swac44 : October 10, 2014 11:22 am

Oh man, do I ever need to see The Mutations, or as it was alternately known, Freakmaker. My choices are a cheap, dodgy looking edition from “Desert Island Classics” or a pricey German import that claims to be uncut. Hmmm…

As a side note to Freaks, Schlitze the Pinhead made another appearance, in a sideshow scene in Meet Boston Blackie, which I managed to track down, only to discover he’s on camera for only about five seconds. At least the film was still entertaining, with a Coney Island sideshow subplot. He’s also supposedly in Island of Lost Souls (didn’t spot him the last time I watched, IMDb has him down as an uncredited “Furry Manimal”) and the Marie Provost circus drama The Sideshow from 1928, directed by Island’s director Earle C. Kenton.

Posted By James : October 10, 2014 1:53 pm

re: Freaks. Johnny Eck (the “half-boy”) also acted in several of MGM’s Tarzan films as a bird-like creature (you can see a short clip of one of his appearances in the documentary included on Warner’s DVD of Freaks).

It’s not a circus film, per se, but The Penguin’s surrogate family in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns resemble circus performers; the movie certainly has gothic/horrific touches, though not a horror film entirely.

Also, not horror, but as a dark fantasy, not far off from Something Wicked, there is Dave McKean’s MirrorMask (a big favorite of mine). The protagonist is a teen-aged daughter of circus performers who discovers a fantasy-world that has circus-like touches here and there.

Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : October 10, 2014 1:56 pm

For me, Freaks is the greatest of Tod Brownings Movies.
One of the true masterpieces of cinema.

Posted By swac44 : October 10, 2014 3:30 pm

What that occurred to me about this new season of American Horror Story is that this sort of thing has already been done to great effect on HBO’s Carnivale, which was sadly cancelled after Season Two. The final episode pointed toward events planned in the following season, although with a bit of judicious editing it could play as a finale (unfortnately, when it aired, Season Three was supposed to be a go).

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 10, 2014 5:40 pm

Thanks for the comments and I appreciate all the recommendations!

James – I’m a huge fan of Dave McKean’s comic book work but I haven’t seen MIRROR MASK yet so I’m going to make a point of seeing that soon.

swac44 – I missed Carnivale when it aired on HBO but it sounds like I should give it a look. I’m afraid I have very basic cable so I can get other channels I watch (TCM, PBS, BBC America, AMC,etc.) but I miss all the Showtime & HBO programs until they’re available on DVD or streaming. That one totally bypassed me!

Posted By swac44 : October 10, 2014 6:20 pm

Carnivale also got bonus points for me for including a Moxie sign in the background of one scene. Some really great art direction on that series. I’ve seen the DVD sets in bargain bins, I’d keep an eye out for it!

Posted By Tim : October 10, 2014 10:46 pm

Another good entry is a film I rewatched again last night, which I won’t name, because the fact that sideshow acts are in the film is supposed to be a surprise, and don’t want to spoil it for anyone. It’s a modestly budgeted film released by Fox in the 1960s, and it probably would have better scares with a little more creative photography. But still think it’s good fun, and first time I saw it, when the first sideshow character shows up in shadow, I was thinking “What the heck is that!”

Posted By george : October 10, 2014 11:11 pm

“This underrated little gem is sure to fascinate and entertain.”

Yes. NIGHT TIDE deserves more recognition. It’s a nifty little sleeper.

Posted By george : October 10, 2014 11:12 pm

While it’s not a movie, the Twilight Zone episode “Perchance to Dream” (1959) has a very eerie carnival sequence.

Posted By MedusaMorlock : October 11, 2014 12:18 am

Lovely & informative post, Kimberly! You bet I enjoyed last night’s preem! I am a life-long aficionado of all things carnival/circus/sideshow and have several shelves of books on the subject. I loved last night’s episode and look forward to more of the actual human marvels in the show and all the wonderful actors made up to portray them, too. I was kind of amazed that they used John Morris’ “The Elephant Man” theme in the show (recognized it IMMEDIATELY!) and more than once, actually. It’s the most melancholy and lovely of carnival-esque music ever, of course, from such a brilliant film. Sort of felt like a bit of a cheat to borrow it for the show, kind of like how a lot of people felt when “Vertigo” music was used in “The Artist” — kind of co-opting somebody else’s genius. It fit in AHS, of course, but it’s a show that has its own good musical sense so it didn’t seem necessary.
Definitely check out Carnivale — great actors in that, too! I know there are modern sideshow troupes around but they have never appealed to me — too show-offy & pleased with themselves, perhaps? — but probably thirty years ago I saw a fabulous tattered one-of-the-last-running sideshows at the L.A. County Fair with most of the old illusions and a great blockhead act. Was thrilling and an honor to have been able to catch it.

When I was programming TCM & TNT we used to do a lot of circus-themed overnights, especially — the promotion department once gave me a birthday card they created with KooKoo the bird girl’s pic on it. Perfect!

So many great things to freak out about with carnivals and circuses — don’t miss the great “One Step Beyond” episode with Pippo the clown!

Glad that we all groove to this stuff!!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 11, 2014 12:54 am

Glad people are enjoy this post! And, Tim – great call on that unnamed film but forgive me if I share the title. I’m pretty sure you’re referring to HOUSE OF THE DAMNED (1963) and now I wish I would have remembered to include that little gem but thanks for jogging my memory. If you’re not thinking of HOUSE OF THE DAMNED, I’m still curious to know what the title is so please share!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 11, 2014 12:56 am

George – I can’t remember “Perchance to Dream” although I’m pretty sure I’ve seen almost all of the Twilight Zone eps. so I’m going to have to watch it soon.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 11, 2014 1:07 am

Medusa – Thanks Medusa and I enjoyed reading your lengthy response! Love the fact that you’re a sideshow/carnival/circus fan. Like you, I grew up loving this stuff. Never had the chance to see an old sideshow but I can distinctly remember going to a circus as a kid in the early 70s that had one & my mother refused to let me see it. I was only allowed to watch the clowns & acrobats. I also got a bad crush on a carnival motorcycle stunt man when I was a teenager. I even considered leaving home & joining the circus but that’s another story for another day. ;)

As much as I love THE ELEPHANT MAN it isn’t a movie a enjoy revisiting very often because it’s so heartbreaking and I haven’t seen it in at least 15 years so I totally overlooked the use of the music on AHS. I suspect the show is going to have a lot of references to other movies or TV programs but I’m kind of looking forward to that, although I can easily understand how it could turn tiresome. And thanks for a second rec. of CARNIVALE. I found it streaming on Amazon so I’m going to have to give it a look soon along with the Pippo the Clown ep. of ONE STEP BEYOND!

Posted By Susan Doll : October 11, 2014 1:36 am

Great post, and such a timely topic given AMERICAN HORROR STORY. The clown’s make up in the premiere episode made chills run down my back.

And, I love the Lon Chaney in THE UNHOLY THREE–both versions.

Posted By Tim : October 11, 2014 11:51 am

It was HOUSE OF THE DAMNED, Kimberly :) It definitely it a fun little gem.

Posted By MedusaMorlock : October 11, 2014 12:49 pm

I forgot to mention that one thing I definitely liked about the AHS clown is his “Mr. Sardonicus”-like grin!

Posted By MedusaMorlock : October 11, 2014 1:09 pm

And the idea of you running away with the circus seems totally in character with your vivid imagination and daring thinking! Wonderful!

Speaking of carnivals, there is a famous lost episode of the show “‘Way Out” which was hosted by Roald Dahl — “Side Show” starring Murray Hamilton as a henpecked husband who becomes fascinated by an attraction where a lady has a lightbulb for a head. Now, this show aired in June of 1961 — I would have just turned 7 — and there was no syndication as there were only 14 episodes — and yet I have NEVER forgotten this. Here is a description: http://www.roalddahlfans.com/tvshows/wayoepisode.php#SIDE

A handful of the eps have been found but not this one, though it was AMAZING, naturally! Definitely made an impression on me!

Posted By James : October 12, 2014 11:06 pm

My goodness. I just realized that you didn’t mention Killer Klowns From Outer Space.

Posted By george : October 14, 2014 1:05 am

As Lon Chaney Sr. supposedly said: “There is nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight.”

Check out The Atlantic’s website for an article on “How Clowns Became Terrifying.”

Posted By swac44 : October 14, 2014 9:13 pm

But I thought clowns have always been terrifying?

Posted By george : November 1, 2014 4:21 am

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