If asked to name the first thing to pop into your head when someone says “circus,” I expect a lot of people would instantly shout out “The Greatest Showman,” and for good reason. Leave your desire for historical accuracy on the bog-like field surrounding the cone-topped tent of wonder, and it’s almost impossible not to be taken in; enraptured by the musical’s lavish production, emotionally manipulative story, and catchy song and dance numbers. Even as a man who has shaped an entire career around being po-faced, certain scenes tug the heartstrings so well they could be used as a real-life Voight-Kampff test. But no. My mind doesn’t immediately leap, like a buoyant fawn, to The Greatest Showman. All I can think about is danger.
I see danger everywhere. I’m the parent in the playground who grabs a child mid-swing to avoid another being catapulted into the climbing frame; I’m the person left alone at a pedestrian crossing as I stubbornly wait for the green man; I genuinely believe lettuce is a dangerous thing to eat. Growing up in and around circuses did not play nicely with this mostly useless and less-than-brilliantly calibrated superpower. I can’t really explain how little I enjoyed sleeping underneath my wantaway-dad’s poisonous spider terrarium or cleaning out his snakes. For the latter, imagine the finale of The Crystal Maze inside the dome, but with snakes instead of tickets and a life-long phobia as the grand prize.
Of course, it would have taken an immense level of skill to build a toe-tapping number for use in The Greatest Showman that, instead, centred on the kind of abominations more suited to a grimy 90 minutes of indulgent and brutal survival-porn. And this is where video games come in. Someone should make a game about the circus, but it should be a survival horror of sorts, not a twee, how many sticks of candyfloss do you want, what colour should the bear’s bowtie be, management sim. I get it, most people love the thrill of the circus, but just think about it for a moment.
I spent many summers living on a circus, either in a caravan or a tiny campervan. My family is a circus dynasty. I know the terror the Big Top brings. I’ve heard the tales, witnessed the scars, and been part of what can only be described as a world where I wish health and safety had gone mad. Watch a few minutes of any sensational Cirque du Soleil show and there will be a moment that sends your heart straight to your mouth. Old fashioned circuses did the same, but the heart’s journey (up your oesophagus?) was lined with razor blades.
To cover the ins and outs of this circus game a little, the lead character could be anyone. Danger is everywhere at the circus, but most people don’t see it. To a child, a circus is a place of wonder, and for a time I loved it. The variety acts inside the ring were captivating, unlike anything I’d ever seen, and it was happening feet from my seat. Little did I consider the risks, such as a tiny slip up sending a knife into a woman’s head or a missed grab resulting in a trapeze artist meeting a hardened floor with neck bones that weren’t in on the act. I didn’t have a clue about all the grisly things that happened. At least not at first.
The story of the man crushed to death by an elephant’s foot has always remained with me, firing into my subconscious like Dumbo’s trippy dream. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, and this is beyond comprehension these days, you could see elephants performing in a ring, practically within touching distance of the audience. How were people not having panic attacks at shows every day? As soon as I heard about elephant stomp man I refused to sit in the front row, despite my family’s desire to get me to be in the ring – presumably to show off just how little of the showbiz genes I’d inherited.
Back in game land, the goal wouldn’t be so much to react to ghastly events, but spot the signs that things are about to go wrong. Final Destination is a great film series for this, throwing everyday objects at the audience like glass-covered curveballs, with only a few being on target to deliver the final blow. What is the real danger and how can it be avoided so people can carry on living oblivious lives?
If you do manage to maintain the full head (and shoulders) of that person who was getting too friendly with a six-ton elephant, don’t rest on your laurels. Look out, that lion looks up for a mauling. Lion taming is legitimately what I’d likely be doing right now if my life had gone a slightly different direction. I don’t fancy it (I’ve heard the stories). Good luck tapping the correct button combos to break free.
Don’t get me wrong, circuses aren’t all about on-edge wild animals forced to perform (and almost exclusively aren’t in the UK anymore), but a lot of my fears stem from them. Hell, I was casually encouraged to hug a bear when I was a child. A bear. An actual bear! Have you seen Grizzly Man? Or more likely, The Revenant? If only I could have pressed A to back away.