1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Directed by: Robert Wiene
Written by: Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer
Where would carnival horror be without the deeply demented Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? A classic in German expressionist horror, the film involves two friends who meet the eponymous evil doctor at a carnival. At his side is Cesare, whom the doctor keeps in a coffin and controls by hypnosis. Worst sideshow attraction ever.
2. Freaks (1932)
Directed by: Tod Browning
Written by: Tod Robbins
We can talk about how problematic Freaks is by modern standards — and, indeed, it’s a serious exploitation of people with physical deformities. But for the self-proclaimed “freaks” of the carnival, the film was a means to show off their talents for the mainstream. In the context of a creepy horror film, of course.
3. Carnival of Souls (1962)
Directed by: Herk Harvey
Written by: Herk Harvey and John Clifford
The story of a woman who begins seeing things after a car crash feels familiar, but it wasn’t trite at the time. The “carnival” in Carnival of Souls is perhaps not the kind of attraction you’re imagining — but it’s creepy enough to merit inclusion. And you’ll never hear organ music the same way again.
4. Vampire Circus (1972)
Directed by: Robert Young
Written by: Judson Kinberg
Well, the title kind of says it all, doesn’t it? There’s a traveling circus, led by a gypsy woman and her dwarf companion, and a whole lot of vampires. The carnival in question isn’t actually called a “Vampire Circus” — that would be a bit too on the nose — but frankly, I wouldn’t attend anything called the “Circus of Night” either.
5. The Funhouse (1981)
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Written by: Larry Block
A group of irresponsible, pot-smoking teenagers make the poor decision of spending the night in the titular funhouse. They soon encounter a killer wearing a Frankenstein’s monster costume. Beneath the mask, he is Gunther, the funhouse barker’s hideously deformed son. And he won’t let anyone leave the ride.
6. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
Directed by: Jack Clayton
Written by: Ray Bradbury and John Mortimer
Based on the novel by Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes is perhaps the most well-known evil carnival story. Two young boys find themselves trapped inside Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival, where the supernatural Mr. Dark tries using his powers to steal the souls of innocent victims.
7. Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
Directed by: Stephen Chiodo
Written by: Stephen Chiodo and Charles Chiodo
OK, it’s more of a comedy than a horror film. And the clowns in question — which are actually alien invaders — spend most of their time outside a carnival setting. But come on, you can’t talk about evil carnivals without at least mentioning these ghastly monstrosities, who, despite being silly, are still INCREDIBLY FRIGHTENING.
8. Waxwork (1988)
Directed by: Anthony Hickox
Written by: Anthony Hickox
You know the story — a group of college students wander into a creepy carnival where they’re picked off one by one. The twist here is that the evil waxworks incorporate different genres: There’s a vampire, a werewolf, and even a Phantom of the Opera, all brought to life by voodoo magic.
9. Santa Sangre (1989)
Directed by: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Written by: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Roberto Leoni, and Claudio Argento
This avant-garde thriller is a lot to take in, with intensely creepy visuals that will stick with you long after the movie is over. Warning: It’s two hours of carnival madness, elephant death, and genital mutilation. If you’re not ready for a hallucinogenic trip to the circus, you’re probably better off avoiding this one.
10. Final Destination 3 (2006)
Directed by: James Wong
Written by: Glen Morgan and James Wong
The third installment in the criminally underrated Final Destination series doesn’t take place entirely at a carnival — but the memorable opening scene does. A word to the wise: Do not ride roller coasters at janky traveling fairs. How safe can they possibly be? And if you are going to, don’t watch Final Destination 3 first.
11. The Last Circus (2010)
Directed by: Álex de la Iglesia
Written by: Álex de la Iglesia
The Last Circus is probably the only horror film about the Spanish Civil War and homicidal clowns that you’ll ever see. It’s filled with graphic violence and explicit sex that will forever change the way you look at clowns. And let’s face it, you were already terrified by clowns, so that’s saying something.
12. The Devil’s Carnival (2012)
Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman
Written by: Terrance Zdunich
Well, it’s a musical. So there’s that. The Devil’s Carnival — a short film about a carnival run by, uh, guess — follows three recently dead people who have to relieve their past sins in a carnival atmosphere. It’s hard to imagine anything more terrifying than that, but yes, they’re also singing.
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