Haunted Tropes #001 – The Spontaneous Circus

Tropes are not clichés, which are dull and uninteresting. These are common scares that come back year after year because they work, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re highly repetitive. Join us every Thursday as we explore these Haunted Tropes.

Creepy clown says, "Go to bed."

Nighty Night!

Okay, I get it. For some reason that I don’t personally understand, clowns are scary. I always thought they were great, myself. Funny hair, big red noses, huge shoes, balloon animals, and those little honky red noses. Oh, and bicycle horns. Don’t ever forget the bicycle horns.

Here’s the thing, though. My memories of clowns are that they were associated with the circus for the most part. Oh, of course, there was always the kid whose parents were apparently rolling in dough that could hire one to come to their kid’s birthday parties, where he’d make the balloons into hats and do magic tricks for all the kids and give them candy and stuff, and of course I wanted to go but I never got invited to anything except the lame birthday parties instead because everyone thought the suspenders my mom made me wear were dorky even thought they were actually efficient and logical garments, and when Nathan Hall had his birthday he said he’d invite me because we were friends and then he never did because he was a traitor like that and Nathan if I ever find you I swear to God I will end you, you back-stabbing son of…


Anyway, the point was, the circus was a pretty rare event. It only came to town once a year, and if you didn’t go downtown during that week, you just missed it, until next year. The Spontaneous Circus refers to the propensity for a circus to pop up all the time, in the least expected places. The best time for the circus is anywhere, any when, if a haunt is to be believed. The setting is immaterial. Barnum and Bailey be damned, the circus is in town and they’ll set up anywhere they like, thank you very much.

Are we in the middle of a butcher shop? Don’t care, circus! A dark, damp cave in the middle of the woods? Don’t care, circus! A cornfield at the intersection of no and where, a hospital, a crypt, a mausoleum, or even up on the deranged mountains of some Redneck Extravaganza, “if you build it they will come” seems to be the motto that drives everyone who’s ever thought about a circus to put one up. I have seen a circus erupt in the rumpus room of someone’s house, for cryin’ out loud. No place, nowhere at all, is immune to the polka dots, the neon glowpaint, or the rainbow-hair-clad warriors of utter doom.

Of course, perhaps I’m the one who’s mistaken. Perhaps there’s a reason the circus is as prevalent as it is. Maybe the haunt owners are trying to tell us something. Maybe they know something we don’t. Forget the zombie apocalypse, that’s just the media trying to throw you off the scent. Maybe the real pandemic that will take humanity to its knees is Circusitis (that’s inflammation of the Circus for those who don’t speak Latin).

Think of it. Maybe there’s a creeping terror out there, that’s sweeping its way across the nation, turning entire, otherwise perfectly normal rooms into Day-Glo nightmares, multi-colored polka dots growing like malignant tumors that will eventually consume the entire structure, and once the human host is infected, the skin turns a pale white while the capillaries under the skin of the nose and mouth burst, causing the infamous red nose and painted smile. But the real trauma is to the brain, turning these once-intelligent people into laughing, maniacal shells of their former selves.

Oh man, I’m starting to get a real case of the heebie-jeebies here. The point is, if you’re striving for something authentic and believable, then every room in your attraction needs to make sense, and to tie into the overall theme in some believable way, and letting the Ringling Brothers decorate the stockroom in your little shop of horrors is the best way to crush any suspension of disbelief your audience had to begin with. Drawing people into the experience is what makes it scary, not mentally ejecting people out of the creepy mental landscape you’ve built so painstakingly over the last several rooms only to crush it dead beneath size 47 shoes.

Haunted Tropes – Introduction


It happens every time.

I’m getting ready to start my fourth year as a haunted house critic now, and I have to say, I love them. I wasn’t sure at first – going into my very first haunt back in 2011 I had to wonder what I had gotten myself into. But it’s been a tremendous thrill ride since then and I discovered very early on that I love not only a chance to be scared, but to see the kinds of things that you don’t get a chance to experience any other way.

BUT. But, but, but…

There are a few things I’ve noticed… things that I’ve seen a bunch of places, over and over again, that I can’t quite shake off. You have to understand, I love a unique haunt experience – it’s the thing that gets me excited about every review season, each and every year. There’s this sense of excitement that picks up around mid-September every year, where I realize that soon, very soon, I’m going to see something that I’ve never seen before. Ever! And you can imagine how that might be a good thing for a guy like me, who spends most of the day every day in a rut. In fact, if you looked up the word “rut” in the dictionary there’d be… well, there’d be a little description of what it meant. But there ought to be a picture of my life in there, because that’s what it is. Get up, go to work, Be Incredible (that’s not in my job description but it’d be a fairly accurate one if it were), go home, cook dinner, a little TV, then sleep. Then I do it all again.

You can see how something to shake up the routine would appeal to me. And then every year, along comes Haunt Season! Huzzah!

BUT. But, but, but…

Then there’s the opposite. The bits of a haunt that are the same no matter where you go. The pieces and parts that start to feel a little bit… samey. The undeniable sense of deja vu when you see them… the stark realization that you’ve stumbled upon a Haunted Trope.

What’s a trope you ask? The good folks at TV Tropes define it this way:

Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means “stereotyped and trite.” In other words, dull and uninteresting.

I agree with that sentiment – these things certainly aren’t dull or uninteresting, they’re just not very unique – they don’t stand out from other haunts. That’s not a bad thing. This just means that they’re the kind of thing that’s supposed to be able to frighten a large cross-section of people. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” my dad used to tell me, and despite the fact that he apparently couldn’t wax poetical without dropping into the speech patterns of a 1950s farmer, there’s definite wisdom in that statement.

So yes, there’s a reason these pieces show up again and again, but I think they’re worth a little exploration anyway (and perhaps poking a bit of fun at). Yes, these are things that get added in time and time again because they work, and because we’re familiar with them from years and years of scary movies and TV shows, but they’re also very tired, well-worn set pieces. I can understand and even appreciate that there are certain standards that one just expects from a haunt experience, but those aren’t the pieces that anyone’s going to be raving about, remembering years and years later.

"I have fond memories of that utterly generic scare from 2011 that I'd seen fifty times before. Well worth the twenty dollars!" said no one ever.

But I got a dollar off for bringing in some baked beans, so…

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost’s famous poem sums it up so well. Read some of our past reviews: every year, the things we applaud are the new, the innovative, and the exciting. Sometimes you need to use the more-traveled road, but it’s nice to take the scenic route as well from time to time. So join me every Thursday for the foreseeable future as we explore Haunted Tropes, and maybe get a few ideas for forging your own road.