My earliest memory of the Canadian National Exhibition, a big annual carnival, is of being nauseous. Not because I had gone several rounds in the gravitron or eaten too many of Tiny Tom’s mini-donuts. I remember walking down a midway, being small and surrounding by big lights, huge banners of mock-freak shows (freak shows themselves aren’t legally executable in many places, outside of reality TV) and deafening noises of both human and mechanical shrieks. It can be pounding, thunderous and frightening for a kid, but also alluring, for those very same reasons. Dark rides and roller coasters, dangerous, exotic, hoisted by temporary girders and flapping parachute sheets. Even with a seedy, barkering history, the way they vanish from their hosting towns alone is a Bradburian evil.
They whisk in, then sweep out with their contraptions and your money. It’s devious, or easy enough to feel that way. The carnival has its own intentions—there’s an easy narrative to call them downright nefarious. Having actually worked the other side of the fence, running the world’s crappiest game, Fortune Falls, for a summer, I know this easily assumable perspective isn’t entirely true. Are games rigged? No, but the odds are generally not in your favour. Are the managers devils incarnate? I can’t confirm nor deny, but from my experiences it’s safe to assume no. In fact my supervisors were far more pleasant than the other teens they stationed me with. Do videogames give a shit? Not at all.
Taking pot shots at carnivals is far easier than taking pot shots at actual carnival games.
Setting a game in a carnival is an easy first step. They provide a lot of what a videogame needs: sights, sounds, excitement and various structures. Maybe tossing a baseball at a stack of milk cans is more exhilarating in real life than digitally, but if you put your arm into it you can transform the stands and sideshows into inventive mini-games and puzzles. But after deciding the setting, you’ve got to decide the tone, and videogames tend to favor a little less variation on that end. Overwhelmingly, the carnival is afoul with evil.
Nightmare Circus, KISS: Psycho Circus- The Nightmare Child, Goosebumps HorrorLand, and the completely different Goosebumps Escape from HorrorLand which, I shit you not, has Jeff Goldblum and Isabella Rossellini as hammy vampires. We’ve returned to these interchanging fridge magnet titles so many times that “evil carnival” is almost a sub-genre. Even as a cameo, the carnival is evil. Gruntilda has Witchyworld installed in her keep in Banjo-Tooie, and Earthbound has you fight a grinning circus tent in Threed.
Midway was the most on-the-nose, with a game whose development probably began title-first: CarnEvil. Seriously, late ‘90s pun-department, give yourself a pat on the back. An arcade shooter that, like so much carnival game equipment, often seemed broken in one way or another, CarnEvil is a gory fling in the key of Rob Zombie.
The game actually takes place in a carnival inside a cemetery when a teen on a ghost tour awakens the spirit of Ludwig Von Tökkentäkker, a Germanic mad scientist slash ringmaster bafflingly buried in Iowa. CarnEvil is divvied into four gruesome areas, a haunted house, a big top, a freak show and a Christmas-themed midway called Rickety Town. Crazed clowns, eight-legged spider monkeys, two-headed acrobats that talk like Goofy, various ghouls: CarnEvil spatters non-evil fairground images with blood and ghosts. It’s sort of like meeting the natural aesthetic halfway.
CarnEvil, like the deep-fried carnivals of its namesakes, is a little bit grotesque. In the freak show stage, when a banner for the bearded lady winds up, it reveals a decaying corpse, face and side rotted away and flesh gray and speckled like a Garbage Pail Kid card. Mutant maggots begin leaping at the player. Later on in that same stage, a basement area reveals that guests and bondage freaks are ground up into gruel for the final boss, a giant baby named Junior who throws diaper pins and spews on the user until its face is bloodied from your bullets. Arcade owners could opt to change this boss into a teddy bear if the image of a raw-fleshed mutant infant made them uncomfortable. But the reasons CarnEvil is gross isn’t the same reason fairs are gross. This is a horror story clinging on to a motif, while carnivals can be unsettling for their own unique, bloodless reasons. Carnivals are a strange place; CarnEvil is a twisted one. There’s at least one game that gets that.
If there is a quintessential entry in to this set of games, it’s Bad Day on the Midway, a point-and-click adventure brought to us by career weirdos The Residents. This game is upsetting for reasons that aren’t so much unspeakable as difficult to pin. Like a lot of Residents lore, it feels part of a larger fever dream. The music is jilted, the narrative is fuzzy, leaping from perspective to perspective, and the imagery looks as if sewn together after being shredded. It’s full of disassociated, politically loaded glimpses of fascists, bigots and dictators, with rides and games which inhabit a logic only parallel to our own, like a communist shooting gallery and a painted rat on a roulette wheel.
Here is a game that taps into our curious apprehension to the carnival without resorting to mutilation. Each of the unnerving carnival folk have odd intentions and spattered characteristics. The midway is a shadow only illuminated by noxious signs and decoration. It’s weird and surreal, a swirling haze that doesn’t even startle Timmy, a naive and curious hero who enthusiastically skips around the twisted place.
The contemporary carnival seems to be battling back against its most well known tropes after decades of steeping. Today the Canadian National Exhibition has almost entirely phased out roller coasters and dark rides, which in the past have been the biggest accident magnets. It’s also a huge bummer. Instead, games, music and food do most of the talking. Wrapping any conventional meal in bacon has turned the food hall into the fair’s biggest attraction, $.99 spaghetti cups neighbouring deep fried clouts of dough.
At this rate, this sobering, it’s possible that the dark carnival could one day be no more. Our quest to sterilize family summer fun could rewrite history, and the grip of carnival creepiness could fade over time as the tales of the illustrated man is replaced with the story of the Rastafarian banana. But maybe it won’t. Maybe it’s the clowns, the cramped outdoor space, the deafening noise, the cackling funhouses. Maybe these things are just scary, not threatening in its parts but an overwhelming whole.
Maybe the carnival was never creepy due to gossip of maniacs in its midst; maybe it’s not something it can overcome. The only thing for sure is that, before the school year begins again, we’re probably going to step right up, try to win a prize and eat something deep fried that has never before been deep fried. And games will effortlessly find a way to demonize that, along with the rest of pop culture.