Though commonly advertised as “wholesome fun for the whole family,” there’s an air of spookiness surrounding the circus. For one thing, clowns.
On a deeper level, mystery, a touch of the supernatural and a peculiar otherness are woven into the fabric of every circus tent. Traveling circuses, in particular, are at face value a collection of drifters with special powers banded together, traveling from town to town to offer an escape from mundanity in exchange for coin and applause.
Paranormal Cirque II—which passed through Chico March 23-27—embraces this dark allure while shucking aside corny pretenses (and clowns, because here they are zombies) to revel within the creepy core of the circus phenomena. This is accomplished with a forked tongue planted firmly in the cheek, and the production still offers plenty of humor, popcorn, nachos and dazzling displays of daring, with an R-rated flair (some profanity, a lot of sexual innuendo and dripping with dark imagery).
From the black-and-red tents that dominated the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds during the troupe’s stay there, to the trio of goth girls in white makeup working the ticket trailer, to the dimly lit entry area filled with fake graves and gruesome props, Paranormal Cirque II takes care in creating an immersive, spooky atmosphere. Even the weather conspired to enhance this ambiance the day I attended—the circus’s final show—darkening the sky but holding back the release of rain until after the action began at 7:30 p.m. Inside the main tent, ushers in makeup or masks led attendees—many of whom came costumed themselves—to their seats.
The circus’s take on scary is of the supernatural/cultist/dark ritual/demons and devils variety, which I personally prefer to overtly gross and gory. There’s some kind of storyline involving a black-cowled Master of Darkness-type dude, a shackled human prisoner, a pair of comical ghost-hunting buffoons and a cavalcade of monsters, but once the show started in earnest the narrative became secondary to the magnificent feats accomplished by the performers.
For more than 90 minutes, the crowd was thrilled by sensual dancers and a quartet of tumbling zombies who make multiple appearances; a juggler; a seductive sword-swallower; a tightrope-walking duo; and more. My two favorite acts featured, respectively, a pair of female contortionists dressed as devilish baby dolls and a melodrama that played out between a tattooed demon on stilts and a show-stopping aerialist.
By far the most astonishing act was, as expected, the grand finale, which featured two men doing death-defying stunts on a huge, spinning, carnival ride-like machine that looked as if it was engineered and built in Hell’s factory district. Their act was an astonishing show of stuntsmanship that pushed the audience to the edge of their seats.
While the supernatural theme added to the, ahem, circus-like atmosphere, the performers’ mastery of their arts remained the heart of the spectacle. To me, part of the beauty of watching performances like this an appreciation for the subtle communication between them and the years of intensive training each performer has undoubtedly endured.
Like many a wild-eyed romantic, I’ve harbored dreams of running away with any and all of the circuses I’ve ever seen. I imagine what it must be like to live among this community of amazing people doing amazing things and the dramas that play out as they drift from town to town. (Someone oughtta make a reality show.)
I also love pondering the logistics of it all, and catching this production on its final night came with an unexpected and eye-opening glimpse behind the curtain. At the end of the show, the crew immediately started tearing it all down. Two men literally carried away the still lit EXIT signs before half the crowd even reached them. Outside, my companion and I stood at a distance watching the controlled chaos as performers and crew members alike pitched in to methodically deconstruct it all and semi trucks stood by, idling and ready to roar through the night to their next stop in Eureka.
If Chico is infernally blessed to host this troupe again, or if I find myself anywhere near a showing in another town, I’ll be at the head of the line, and recommend all horror and circus fans to do the same.