Step Right Up: The Carnival in Horror Movies

Although the days of the circus and management of their menageries are fast becoming a thing of the past, the carnival or fair coming to town is still something many look forward to and enjoy — especially in summer. That these collections of spectacle and play bring out the kid in many of us is no surprise. What is curious, however, is how often the carnival is depicted in horror movies as places of great danger or dread. And how often a wide variety of filmic tropes are served by a carnival setting.

Caligari at the Fair
Dr. Caligari acts as barker to have the carnival audience gather to see Cesare. Photo from The British Film Institute.

“Hereinspaziert” (“Step” or “Walk” “Right In”) reads the intertitle as the titular doctor invites onlookers to see the somnambulist Cesare in 1920’s CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI. It’s a beckoning not only to the people at the fair, but also to us, the audience, to witness the sideshow attraction that is the sleepwalker. It is the first time we get to see Cesare, as he emerges from a box on a stage. The importance of the carnival or fair (as it is referred to in the German) is thus made apparent: in CALIGARI, at least, it’s where the horror is first revealed. And in this revelation that the carnival is firmly established as a place where horror dwells. CALIGARI may, in fact, be the first instance in horror films that the carnival takes on such an association.


Jump to 1932 and pre-code Hollywood: only two days separate the release of MURDERERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (in theaters February 10 of that year) and the notorious FREAKS (released February 12). In the former, Doctor Mirakle (Bela Lugosi), is both a carnival sideshow entertainer and a scientist: one who exhibits Erik, an ape. In FREAKS (prodcued by Todd Browning, once a carnival barker), the sideshow is front and center.

Cleopatra (Olga Baklanova)
Cleopatra (Olga Baklanova) from Freaks (1932)

In both, two common tropes are at work. There is the grotesque, which elicits both our sympathy and fear. Then there is the hand of vengeance — with Erik ultimately killing the mad scientist Mirakle; and the freaks of FREAKS getting revenge: first on Hercules the strongman with whom trapeze artist Cleopatra has an affair; then on Cleopatra herself. Her sin? She not only cuckolds her husband, Hans (Harry Earles), a little person, but also tries to poison and kill him. She mocks the members of the sideshow, and openly humilates her husband. Thus, her internal ugliness is shown as greater than the grotesquery of the “freaks.” Their ultimate revenge is uncomfortable to watch, but we feel for them. These are people, despite their deformitieis. And there is sympathy in the grotesque.


The tropes of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE and FREAKS, however, aren’t present (and may even be inverted) in 1940’s somewhat absurd THE APE. Written by Curt Siodmak (of WOLFMAN fame), THE APE serves up a cruelly treated, sympathetic circus ape as the catalyst that leads to yet another mad doctor (Boris Karloff as Dr. Bernard Adrian) running amok — donning the beast’s flesh to murder townspeople for their spinal fluid. The “ape” is summarily shot in an unsatisfying end, despite a good performance by Karloff.

House of Frankenstein
Klarloff (left) ready to ressurect Dracula in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN

1944’s HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN finds a carnival owner in possession of the skeleton of Count Dracula. Again, it is a mad doctor that forwards the plot. Gustav Niemann (again, played by Karloff) has his hunchback assistant kill the owner, as he then proceeds to remove a stake from Dracula’s heart. Thus resurrecting the vampire, Niemann commands the Count to kill those who had the doctor sent to prison. The hand of vengeance is again at play, only put to nefarious ends. And unlike any other Dracula film, the vampire is first introduced like a waxed figure or horrific diorama on display, reducing him to mere sideshow attraction until he is brought back to life.

Dracula once again surfaces at a sideshow attraction in the much different (and maligned) DRACULA  VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971) — a movie so bad that it’s good. Here, we find the mad scientist (J. Caroll Nash) working with Dracula to revive the Frankenstein monster in a secret laboratory hidden behind the “Creature Emporium,” a haunted house exhibit located on a boardwalk amusement park. It’s a carnival atmosphere, with some really bad acting with even worse special effects.

Serena, the tiger woman, from VAMPIRE CIRCUS
Serena, the tiger woman, from VAMPIRE CIRCUS

Vampires of a different kind — along with a dwarf and a gypsy woman — show up in the traveling roadshow that is Hammer’s VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972). Here, there are acrobats, actual bats, and even a dancing woman painted up like a hippie tiger. It is a menagerie of characters that serve a somewhat uninteresting revenge plot involving yet another aristocratic vampire (of which we have so many in the genre). But that’s what makes the circus performers much more interesting — as they (literally) take center stage.

In VAMPIRE CIRCUS, all characters other than villagers are truly outsiders — the “other” as such characters are often referred to in psychological interpretations of film. And here, we know from the very title alone that danger awaits the “normal people.” Tying that danger to the circus seems natural. By the nineteen seventies, it would seem the carnival as trope in and of itself was firmly part of the language of film.

Carnival of Souls
Strange visions at THE CARNIVAL OF SOULS

What’s overt in VAMPIRE CIRCUS is somewhat subverted a decade earlier in 1962’s CARNIVAL OF SOULS — a film where horror isn’t so much in front of you as it is inside. As possibly the most unqiue film explored in this post — part b-movie and part new wave — CARNIVAL OF SOULS expertly captures the strange dreamlike quality of the carnival. Its plot is essentially the surreal experience of a woman whose car accident finds her frightened and confused, wandering around an abandones carnival. In the same way the angular German expressionist backgrounds of CALIGARI make the carnival much more the stuff of dreams than reality, the sparse sets and eerie quiet of CARNIVAL OF SOULS suggests something born of the subconscious. (So as not to spoil the movie for those who haven’t see it, I’ll leave it at that. Knowing that dreams are involved won’t ruin the somewhat telegraphed but nonetheless satisfying ending of the film.


Since the silent age, horror films have been carnival-like in and of themselves. Spectacle. Grotesqueries. Thrills. With elements of the circus, the vaudeville, and the burlesque.

From THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI to 2014’s AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW, it is no wonder then that the carnival is a setting used by many horror movies and television shows. Location truly serves the story.

The horror film, after all, is a carnival or sorts. And we are beckoned by trailers, posters, and all forms of publicity to “step right up” and “step right in.”


Brides and Daughters: Women of Universal Monster Movies

Considering my most popular post to date has concerned the women of Hammer Horror, I figured it was time to turn my attention to the classic Universal Studios monster movies of the thirties and forties, and the actresses that made them great. Brides. A daughter. An invisible woman. Even before the age of sound, with its successful Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera (1925), Universal was known for creating memorable monsters. But with 1931’s DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN,  the studio truly mastered the art of monster-making. No one denies that Lugosi’s titular count, or Karloff’s monster are a part of pop culture like no other monsters of the twentieth-century. And, unsurprisingly, it is Lugosi and Karloff  that are the actors most often discussed in regard to horror movie history. But Universal Studios’s horror films contain some equally memorable, frightening (and, at least on one occasion, funny) female characters.

Dracula's Brides in 1931's Dracula
Pictured from left to right: Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, and Cornelia Thaw. From DRACULA (1931)

The brides in DRACULA, for example, are truly threatening women. Ethereal creatures. And deadly. It is only through the intervention of the Count that they give up their pursuit of Dwight Frye’s poor Renfield. While Garret Fort’s script takes its cue from Balderston and Deane’s play, the scene gets close to the eeriness of the novel. The appearance of the brides is essential to the film (and the novel), as it establishes Dracula as both a vampire that can create other vampires (an infection), and women as more than mere victims of the Count (by no means the weaker sex). Though their screen time is short, the effect of the brides of Dracula is lasting — one of menace and death.

Elsa Lanchester as The Bride of Franstein (1935)
Elsa Lanchester as The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Elsa Lanchester, however, as the titular BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) plays a more sympathetic character. Similarly on screen for mere minutes (at the very end of the film, unless you count her appearance as Mary Shelley in the opening), Lanchester plays more of a creature to be pitied than feared — shocked more than shocking as she rejects the advances of the monster for whom she is made. Yet is is her character that is among those best remembered by the audience, with a scream that shreds the silver screen, She is there as men’s (and monster’s) plans literally crumble to dust.

Gloria Holden as Dracula's Daughter (1936)
Gloria Holden as Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

It is with the character of Countess Marya Zaleska in 1936’s DAUGHTER OF DRACULA that Universal found its first true female monster, a fully fleshed out (and blood curdling) character that is both sympathetic and threatening. Played with sophistication and mystery by the talented Gloria Holden, Zaleska is perhaps the first truly conflicted vampire in cinema history (long before Hammer made it a theme, Anne Rice made a literary career of it, and Twilight a hallmark of its series of films). Though Zaleska feeds (most notably in a scene that many consider the first cinematic suggestion of a lesbian vampire), she yearns for a cure to her condition. Tragically, it is not meant to be.

Invisible Woman (1940)
Press kit promotional still from Invisible Woman (1940)

To the opposite extreme is the comedic INVISIBLE WOMAN (1940). Here, the horrible is played purely for laughs with the title character, played by Virginia Bruce, first getting revenge on a sadistic boss then playing foil to a group of thieving thugs. If there’s any doubt as to the silliness of the picture, know that Shemp Howard’s in it. Still, it’s not a terrible movie, unlike…

SHE-WOLF OF LONDON (1946). An outright misfire. Forgettable, despite a decent enough performance by June Lockhart (long before she was lost in space), the movie is by no means horror, and certainly not (intentional) comedy. Instead, it’s a dull mystery film where a woman believes herself to be a werewolf, responsible for a series of murders where victims had their throats ripped out. Spoiler alert: she isn’t.

Curiously, one of the most monstrous women in all of Universal Studios horror movies is Dr. Sandra Mornay (played by Lenore Aubert). A scientist in cahoots with Dracula to give the Frankenstein Monster a more obedient brain,  Dr. Mornay is a serious threat to the bumbling Wilbur (Lou Costello) in 1948’s ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. With its many monsters and truly memorable performances, the film is actually among the best examples of horror comedy movies. And it was definitely a highlight for Lugosi (only his second, and last time playing Dracula for Universal), whose career was well on the decline.

Lenora Aubert and Bela Lugosi in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
Lenora Aubert and Bela Lugosi in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)

While some Pre-Code actresses got to play more complex characters, female characters of the late thirties, forties and fifties were too often relegated to roles of the good daughter, the imperiled girlfriend, or the dutiful wife. Women’s liberation was decades away, and Universal Studios, for the most part, played it safe.

Evelyn Ankers gives Lon Chaney Jr. a long overdue trim
Evelyn Ankers gives Lon Chaney Jr. a long overdue trim

Actresses like Evelyn Ankers served as beauties to Universal’s beasts. Ankers, most notable for THE WOLF-MAN (1941) was a Universal Studios staple, appearing also in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Captive Wild Woman (1943), Son of Dracula (1943), The Mad Ghoul (1943), Jungle Woman (1944), Weird Woman (1944), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), and The Frozen Ghost (1945).

Other talented women like Valerie Hobson and Gloria Stuart (both of whom also starred in multiple Universal Horror films) had long and varied careers. Just two among the many actresses that made those movies work as well as they did. Louise Allbritton, Helen Chandler, Mae Clarke. Julie Adams. Susanna Foster. Martha O-Driscoll. Jane Randolph. The list goes on and on.

Though their cult of followers is not as prominent as those for the women of Hammer Horror, the women of Universal’s monster movies are undeniably essential to the success and legacy of those films.


(for more on Universal monster movies, click here)

By Christopher Michael Davis