The Hidden Side of Circuses and Illusionists

EN(Article in French here)

Stage magicians with amazing tricks or wizards with actual powers?
Disabled humans portraying freaks or supernatural beings hiding in a troupe?
Controversial animal welfare issues or animal shows supposed to take us back to mythical times?
A dreamy, innocent atmosphere can turn into a dark and twisted one at or against you will…

Circuses are places of either wonder and childhood amazement, or fear and nightmares – up to 12% of adults in the US might suffer from coulrophobia, according to this website, while other might suffer from fear of puppets – but they fascinate most of us and provide a ready-made inspiration for numerous works of fiction.

Indeed, sometimes “something else” must be going on behind the red curtains…

Demonic Circus by vinegar
Demonic Circus by vinegar

Duelling Magicians

Erin Morgenstern: The Night Circus, 2011

The circus arrives without warning. […] It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

Le Cirque des Rêves – The Circus of Dreams – is the gorgeous setting of Erin Morgenstern’s 2011 fantasy novel, The Night Circus. This Victorian travelling circus is the stage of a competition between magicians. But the new competitors are in love with each other and will try to save themselves and the circus… Each tent of the circus contains a tableau where awed visitors can wander, for instance an ice garden or a cloud maze. Erin Morgenstern’s writing skills are in par with the universe she has created, so this is a read I strongly recommend.

The Night Circus, Abigail Larson
The Night Circus, Abigail Larson

Christopher Priest: The Prestige, 1995 – Christopher Nolan: The Prestige, 2006

The story revolves around two stage magicians competing fiercely in a proto-steampunk Victorian world. The result might be tragic, and the reader/audience is wondering exactly what kind of tricks are being performed.

I recommend to read the book and to watch the movie, both are very interesting and do not end exactly the same way.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Terry Gilliam, 2009

Doctor Parnassus and “Mr Nick” compete to gather souls as they made a deal: Mr Nick gave Parnassus immortality in exchange for his daughter’s soul when she turns 16. As Valentina, his daughter, is 15, Parnassus regrets his choice and obtains a new wager: her soul will stay with whomever wins five souls first. The Imaginarium, Parnassus and his troupe’s magical travelling theatre, leads people to a world of imagination where Mr Nick tries to win them…


Not really two duelling magicians, but a magician and Prince Leopold in Belle Epoque Vienna, I enjoyed the movie The Illusionist, by Neil Burger, 2007.

I would also really like to read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, 2005. It has been on my wish list for years.

Tricks will Get you This Far

Jane Jensen’s Gray Matter, 2010 loved the atmosphere, music and story of this point and click video game. Sam, a stage magician, becomes the mysterious Dr Styles’s assistant in Oxford. While she is playing card tricks to have her way, Dr Styles is doing psychic experiments. Are the strange events happening in Oxford created by a ghost, as Dr Styles ponders, or a Grand Game crafted by an illusionist to ruin the professor’s life, as Sam thinks? She will try to uncover who is behind those nasty “jokes” thanks to her own illusionist’s tricks.

Daedalus Club, in Gray Matter

K-20: Legend of the Mask, Shimako Sato, 2008

This very entertaining Japanese movie takes place in a 1948-1949 Japan in which WWII never happened, but where the gap between aristocrats and the poor people is huge. A masked thief is stealing from the rich and Endo Heikichi, a circus acrobat, is accused of being K20 because of his skills…


in Alistair MacLean’s novel from 1975, Circus, the CIA hires Bruno Wildermann, amazing trapeze artist and medium in a circus, in order to infiltrate an Eastern Europe fortress… While this novel has many flows, I loved it when I was a child.

Alistair MacLean - Circus.jpg

Funfair Freaks

Yana Toboso: Black Butler’s Noah’s Ark Circus arc, 2008-2009

Adapted into the Book of Circus anime, the “Noah’s Ark Circus” arc in Black Butler – a manga series by Yana Toboso –  is a very compelling one. In a pseudo-Victorian England, young Ciel Phantomhive, accompanied by his devil of a butler Sebastian, is working for Queen Victoria. They have to infiltrate a circus in order to see if it has something to do with missing children in the area, and indeed it might… We meet the Joker and his prosthetics hand, Snake who can communicate with his reptiles, Beast, Doll, and other circus artists.

Torchwood: From out of the Rain, Season 2 episode 10, 2008

This very eerie Torchwood episode tells us about a time when travelling funfairs roamed the UK. Captain Jack Harkness once did perform as the Man Who Could Not Die – well, he can’t – as his crew finds out while looking at old footage in a vintage cinema. But The GhostMaker and the Mermaid Woman, part of the “Night Travellers”, leave the film and try to revive the troupe… Not exactly in a nice way.

Lost Girl: Something Wicked This Fae Comes, Season 2 Episode 1, 2011

Lost Girl is a Canadian series about Bo, a succubus who is trying to control her abilities, understand who she is and what is the world of the Fae. In the second season’s first episode, a Fae travelling circus appears to be linked to a murder. Bo and her friends meet the Fae freaks and try to understand what happened.


I haven’t seen it yet but the 1932 movie Freaks by Tod Browning was played by real carnival sideshow performers and was considered too shocking to be released in its original version. The plot revolves around the planned murder of a midget by a trapeze artist who’d like to marry him and inherit from him.

A dream or a nightmare?

MirrorMask, Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman, 2005

Helena and her family are circus owners and performers, but the teenager gets tired of it. She curses her mother who thinks working in a circus is every child’s dream but she soon gets sick. Helena can’t help feeling responsible and worried. She will enter a strange world very similar to her own drawings – Dave McKean’s wonderful artworks – and will try to save the White Queen, who looks like her own mother, while the other Queen’s daughter, who is Helena’s doppelgänger, has taken her place in the real world. Dreams as well as practical issues arise in the context of the circus, a background and mirror of Helena’s coming of age.

Big Fish, Tim Burton, 2003

A son and a father, Edward Bloom, reconcile on the latter deathbed. Edward tells the story of his youth and at some point tells him how he met his wife. While he and his friend Karl attend a Calloway Circus performance, Edward falls in love with a young woman.

To learn her name – Sandra, he accepts to work for free in the Circus, lost in his dreams of her. But the ringmaster doesn’t really help until Edward finds out he’s a werewolf.

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean: Mr. Punch, 1994

Or The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch. This graphic novel follows the narrator’s childhood memories whose pattern is similar to the nightmarish, disturbing story of the Punch and Judy show he watches at a British seaside carnival. We uncover dark family secrets with him, as we meet the arcade-owning grandfather, the poor mermaid actress, or the grandmother. As adults we are both appalled by their horror and bitterly reminded of what it is like to be a child when grown-ups are treacherous and mean. This also definitely explains why people might be afraid of puppets.

This graphic novel is a jewel.


Since I’ve briefly mentioned coulrophobia I have to write about Balada Triste de Trompeta, The Last Circus in English, by Alex de la Iglesia, 2010 – a very interesting but sometimes shocking, depressing movie.

Javier joins a circus as the sad clown and tries to avenge his father, another clown who was killed during the Spanish civil war. He falls in love with the Funny Clown’s girlfriend and both of them get beaten a lot by the clown, until Javier escapes, naked, in the forest, before being enslaved by his father’s killer…

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