The Latin words “carne” and “vale” mean, literally, “farewell to meat” or “farewell to flesh.” This definition showcases the religious origin of carnival celebrations (in relation to Lent), but also proves illustrative in understanding this popular cult-tv trope.
The carnival or circus are realms of letting go; of shedding civilization and embracing basic desires and drives.
Historically, carnivals — worlds of masquerades and celebrations — were frequently used to mock sacred church ceremonies and officials. Carnivals are also sometimes considered “upside down” worlds, ones literally cloistered or secluded from mainstream society. In these colorful, raucous worlds, we don’t understand all the rules and so we feel endangered by them.
In other words, the carnival is a separate, alien realm where letting go — expressing desire — constitutes the norm.
Accordingly, the carnival has been a location of “the Id Unleashed” in cult television history. In The Twilight Zone’s “Perchance to Dream” (1959) by Charles Beaumont, a man, Edward Hall (Richard Conte) with a dangerous heart condition dreams of a nightmare carnival world where a luscious female siren, Maya (Suzanne Lloyd) beckons him.
If he surrenders to his dream desire for this almost feral cat woman, his own body will kill him for it. The narrative’s conflict occurs between desire (represented by the carnival) and reason/science/medicine. Do we obey our Id? Or our sense of logic and rationality? Here, the world of the carnival is equated with human dreams…and nightmares.
One Step Beyond’s “The Clown” by Merwin Gerard and Larry Marcus treads along not entirely dissimilar lines. In this tale, a husband’s (Christopher Dark) jealousies and passions — the Id again — consume him and at the carnival, he murders his innocent wife, Nonnie. (Yvette Mimieux). But the murderous husband is then haunted by a vengeful, undying clown figure, Pippo (Mark Shaughnessy). It’s as though the unloosing of the Id has opened up a doorway to other, inescapable terrors.
Once you give into desire, it can consume you.
In The Fantastic Journey (1977) episode titled “Funhouse,” wayward travelers in the Bermuda Triangle discovered a strange fun house and carnival operated by a mysterious magician, Marcus Apollonius (Mel Ferrer).
On the surface, the carnival appeared harmless. Below the surface, Apollonius and his minions plotted to possess the living, namely Dr. Jonathan Willaway (Roddy McDowall) and Lianna (Katie Saylor).
Important in this narrative is the deep gulf breaching surface and substance, appearance and reality. Here, the “safe” fun house and its magician are but masks for dark and malevolent forces. What’s underneath the facade of the carnival?
In tales such as The Evil Touch’s “The Trial” and The X-Files’ “Humbug,” the carnival represents an alien society with an alien set of beliefs and laws.
Navigating the world of the carnival involves successfully countenancing these beliefs. In the carnival, you find not only clowns, but geeks and freaks, and each is a representative of an alien system of thinking and behaving. To those of the normal world, the carnival might as well be another planet…
From 2003 to 2005, HBO aired Carnivale, a series set at a traveling carnival during the Great Depression. The hero was a man named Ben (Nick Stahl) who joined the carnival, and was headed for a meeting with a monstrous preacher, Justin (Clancy Brown).
In this case, a sort of “reverse” dynamic existed, showcasing the Carnival not entirely as a place of evil, but as a setting or “home” for the protagonists. Meanwhile, conventional organized religion, represented by Brown’s character, seemed authentically malevolent by comparison.
What remains so odd about the carnival in cult-television history is that it has become so frequently a domain of terror. Although carnivals and circuses are ostensibly supposed to be fun places, they are actually the origin places of monsters (Tales from the Crypt: “Lower Berth”) or living, breathing, unending nightmares (Star Trek: Voyager: “The Thaw.”)
The sub-textual message of carnivals in cult-tv must therefore be that we should fear these places.
We should fear the shedding of our “normal” life, and feel anxious about those who make the carnival their home terrain…