An excerpt from Americana Macabre: Dark Mythologies of the US by R.T. Benson, University of New Mexico Press, 1996
...And in that way we finally reach a sort of unassuming apex in the Place/Event category with the tales of the so called “Gas Station Carnivals”.
It is here I must confess a personal connection to this particular story set, as it could be argued I am one of many who helped propagate it in my youth. So I must take a quick detour and temporarily switch hats; from scholar to storyteller.
My family did what many suburban middle class families did for vacation in the 70's; take long road trips to visit the many historical landmarks that would in no way interest anyone under the age of thirty. Arguments, country radio stations and seedy motels filled our lives for upwards of two weeks at a time.
But there was one thing that kept me from completely losing my preteen mind back then, packed in that hot station wagon with my older brother for endless days. And that was the promise of visiting “The funny shows”.
After speaking with my brother on a number of occasions while writing this book, we could collectively come up with only a handful of times we supposedly witnessed what we ourselves dubbed “The funny shows”.
They would appear randomly among the untold number of barely functional gas stations littering America's major thoroughfares. Pinning down what gas station chains, highways or even states most associated with these “carnivals” has proven difficult, but based on personal memories as well on numerous correspondence, it would seem most encounters occurred in South Western states.
We'd often come across these little carnivals at the most remote of gas stations, usually it seemed around dusk. My father would fill that insatiable gas guzzling boat of a vehicle while my mom would supervise from the comfort of the passenger seat or from inside the convenience store; purchasing snacks to keep us quite until we reached our motel.
Still in the early days of “stranger danger” culture, my brother and I weren’t supervised much on these short stops. We'd wander across the scorching blacktop parking areas and often find ourselves climbing over wood fences onto cattle grazing land or under rusted metal gates to inspect the detritus littering many gas station back lots. And it was back lots where we would see them.
They appeared to be small carnivals that had fallen in states of utter disrepair. Some had rides that appeared more functional then others, but most were simply small corralled areas with half a dozen rusted rides and a single, tattered circus tent in the center.
After examining the unattended rides, we always seemed to make our way into the huge tent. It was here that the high strangeness of this whole phenomena began as the sun always seemed to be in the same place as we stepped in.
That point in a sunset where the light had dimmed but the red and orange hues were blazing. It seemed to enhance the decrepitude of our surroundings, especially the tent. It took a special kind of childhood braveness and stupidity to walk around a creepy carnival and into a tent, totally out of view and possibly ear shot of your parents.
Inside would be a scene out of some 70's Italian horror flick; uneven wooden benches littered the dusty dirt floor. A stage comprised of rotting wood stood on the opposite end. A show, more specifically a side show, would be in progress.
There would always be a man, neither tall nor short, neither fat nor skinny wearing a tattered tux. His top hat would be of that exaggerated Lincoln variety and his back was always to us, long cape trailing towards the “crowd”. I cannot stress this detail enough: he would never completely turn around.
Bearded ladies, “geeks” biting the heads off chickens, strong men of grotesque proportions and the like would come from behind the stained curtain and preform around and in front of, what my brother and I would inevitably call, The Ring Leader. They'd preform all the bizarre acts you would expect of such a show, all the while The Ring Leader would stand stock still, never moving an inch.
We would laugh and ooh and ahh at the strange sights and stranger people ignoring the sour smell of the place and frankly nightmarish setting.
I look back and wonder how we weren’t horrified by some of the most extreme acts like “Mr. Needles” and “The Three Amigos Who Where Once One”.
The whole show would be capped off with a big finale where the whole cast would come out and began dancing erratically around us, organ grinder music piping in from nowhere. Everyone would be smiling these enormous rictus smiles and would each in turn pat us on the back.
The music would cut out abruptly and the whole ensemble would file out the tent at the back of the battered stage. It was then that the The Ring Leader would ever so slightly turn his head to the left, a brief glimpse of ratty blonde hair and mottled skin and...that seems to be where my brother and I's memory blank out. The next thing either of us can recall in every single instance is sitting in the car, no longer anywhere near the gas station and the sun being well down.
The show seemed almost like dreams bordering on nightmares, but we never thought of them that way. There was something too real about the whole experience, at least to us.
I spoke with a psychologist friend early on about all this and his impression was that we were suffering from the usual overly active childhood imagination that had blended into our “actual” memories. A common occurrence, he assured me, as we get older.
Human memory being what it is, I was inclined to believe him.
It wasn’t until research for this book started in earnest (and after a few conversations with my brother) that I posted the topic on a few Usenet boards. My threads were inundated with posts from dozens of people who had experienced nearly the exact same events as children.
There were also mentions of disturbing, tangentially connected events that hinted at a wider world of disquieting stories: A rash of menacing clown sightings around the Boston area in 1981. The Solway Firth Spaceman. Young women disappearing along a desolate Canadian highway for decades. Children's television shows that could never have existed, but are remembered nonetheless.
In the end, though, no one seemed to be able to pin down anymore details then my brother and I could. Sometimes the performers changed, the states varied, but the core experience was the same: a creepy side show behind a gas station that no one but the person in question saw.
I ended up nearly where I started. Unlike most of the urban legends and campfire tales I've presented thus far which have given up at least some details of their origins and connection with reality, the “Funny Shows” have not. Not these “Gas Station Carnivals”, as one user's post put them.
They remain as darkly ephemeral as they seemed to me and my sibling all those years ago. They could still be out there, even in this age of space travel and cellular phones. Entertaining a whole new generation of youth, but also planting a seed of future unnerving doubt about what lies beyond the next desolate stretch of American highway.
This pasta is a sort of "meta sequel" to the short story "Gas Station Carnivals" by Thomas Ligotti. If you enjoyed this pasta and/or are interested in Horror/Lovecraftian/Weird fiction, than I highly recommend picking up the Ligotti story collection Teatro Grottesco, featuring "Gas Station Carnivals".
Written by RoboKy