Paranormal Cirque’s Big Top of Terror is filled with phantasmal thrills but the most preternatural phenomena are the circus acts themselves.
Note: Since initially publishing, this post has been updated with video and additional photographs from Paranormal Cirque.
A Circus of Horrors is currently haunting Woodland Hills, but it is not the Circus of Nights from Vampire Circus, nor is it Mr. Dark’s traveling carnival from Something Wicked This Way Comes. No, it’s Paranormal Cirque from Cirque Italia, purveyor of themed shows such as Water Circus and Cirque Slammer. Billed as a “fusion between circus, theatre, and cabaret,” Paranormal Cirque cloaks traditional circus entertainment in an overlay of supernatural thrills and horror: there are no killer clowns, but everyone from the ticket booth to the concession stands is adorned in ghoulish attire; the entrance tent is a mini-scare zone haunted by zombies and ghouls; the main tent is dominated by the facade of a sinister mansion, where a photo op during intermission features an electrocuted mannequin flanked by live performers wielding fangs and chainsaws.
In the manner of modern circus, Paranormal Cirque is quasi-theatrical in nature. Instead of a ringmaster, the master of ceremonies is a shrouded figure who pontificates on the nature of Evil lurking within mankind, presenting the different acts are illustrations of these tendencies: the dance troupe are zombies who attack a victim in the audience; the acrobat spinning on a rope overhead is a possessed woman levitating during an exorcism; another aerial performer is wheeled on stage like Hannibal Lecter; the juggler is first glimpsed as mad butcher slicing the remains of a human victim; the female contortionist twists and turns like a human arachnid, imitating Regan’s spider-walk from The Exorcist; and the show’s two “clowns” are introduced as ghost hunters wandering into a haunted house that is way out of their league.
Paranormal Cirque: Interview Q&A with Steve & Ryan
To learn more about this weird, wonderful hybrid of circus, theatre, and horror, Hollywood Gothique had a chat with the team of Steve and Ryan, a.k.a. Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs, whose comic antics fill the role of clowns in a traditional circus. Since Paranormal Cirque presents itself as a horror-themed circus with theatrical flair, our questions focused on two primary topics: horror and theatricality. In other words, how much scarier – and how much more dramatic – is Paranormal Cirque than a traditional circus?
The transcript below contains the entire interview (lightly edited for grammar and clarity) which was excerpted for the video embedded at top.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: What makes Paranormal Cirque “paranormal”?
STEVE COPELAND: Paranormal Cirque is a horror circus and that’s not something that the people of America have really experienced before. You’re going to see traditional circus acts all with a horror twist. For instance we have an amazing juggler who on his spare time is a serial killer butcher. We have a demonic possessed girl who flies around by her hair, which as movies and TV led me to believe – that’s what happens when you’re possessed by a demonic spirit.
We have acrobat zombies. We have two intrepid and hilarious ghost hunters – that’s us – and all this takes place in stately Rebecca Manor, the most haunted spot in the world so it really is an experience people don’t want to miss because if you love circus, if you love horror, this is the perfect marriage of the two of them.
RYAN COMBS: It’s a really neat idea to be able to bring a haunt with a live show connected to it right into people’s backyards so you don’t have to wait for Halloween. We tour around the country all year and you don’t have to travel far to a major haunt; we bring it right to you
STEVE COPELAND: In addition to the performance, there is a pre-show with a haunt attraction attached so if you show up 40 minutes early you get to experience our pre-show where our performers are acting as scare actors so you’re going to get people jumping out and scaring the heck out of you and then later you’re going to see them doing amazing feats of superhuman strength and agility so it’s very unique in that regard as well.
RYAN COMBS: Yes it’s a completely immersive experience here at Paranormal Cirque. From the moment you arrive you are in the world surrounded by world-class acrobats and surrounded by a horror theme. It is for adults. It’s a rated R show so there’s crude language and horror-themed violence but in the end it’s a lot of fun. It makes a great date night.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: An element of fear has always kind of been underlying the traditional circus because you got people dangling in the air or in cages with lions but I get the impression that Paranormal Cirque isn’t particularly exploiting this aspect of fear – its circus of horrors is going for “nightmares,” I think is the word on the website the official website.
STEVE COPELAND: You know there is still the element of tension and fear from the death defying angle. For instance I’m in charge of the social media for the show – humblebrag – and we have a amazing final act where a man is fighting for his life on this giant rotating wheel and I’ve seen many people commenting about how their heart was in their throats and one person even said “my cheeks were clenched the entire time” so in the horror aspect of fear you are going to be fearing for the safety of our performers as they defy death right in front of you and this is live. This is not a Youtube video; this is not a Paramount Plus exclusive; this is right in front of you. Every night people are putting their lives on the line for your entertainment.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Just to clarify – and I know you can’t demarcate this real precisely – how theatrical is Paranormal Cirque. Is it just an underlying theme, or how much narrative is there?
RYAN COMBS: There are different elements to Paranormal Circle. One of them is when you first arrive in our pre-show it’s decorated like you’re in a haunted attraction area where you can buy your popcorn and cotton candy, which is looks like spider webs. We have actors walking around scaring you and you’re surrounded by all this stuff and that’s right when you arrive. Then when you get into the show itself each act is a different horror kind of stuff. There are serial killer butchers, the possessed girl; there are zombies, vampires – all encompassing the horror genre. On top of that there’s also a huge amount of comedy. Between having your heart in your throat watching these people do super human feats over your heads, there’s a release of screams and laughter with the comedy element of the show so really it has something for everyone.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: For people who maybe don’t understand the modern concept of what circus has become, could you explain what you know what is a theatrical circus. It’s not just acrobatics or athletics anymore; it’s something more.
RYAN COMBS: Here at Paranormal Cirque, what we’ve done is taken traditional circus acts and we put some narrative to them. There is a storyline you can follow with Steve and my characters through the show but also there’s just fun theming around each act and the transitions between one act and another are theatrical transitions, not just a ring master coming out in a top hat and directing your attention like a traditional circus. But that’s kind of the modus operandi here at our parent company, Circa Italia. We’ve taken circus in a different way across the different shows that we have.
STEVE COPELAND: Everybody’s seen a traditional circus and I think one refreshing thing for people to come to Cirque Italia’s productions is it’s something different. I see people say that all the time on social media. It’s just not one act after another with the ring master; you’re seeing stuff with theme-ing either overall or individually in an act. For instance, Italia has two water circuses. One is 1950s themed and one is pirate themed so you know it’s not just going to see a circus; it’s going to see a 1950s circus or a pirate circus or a horror circus and Italia pays careful attention to really theme-ing each of their shows so that it is an overall immersive experience and not just a night out going to see a show.
RYAN COMBS: Exactly. I think that’s the best way we can describe what this company does is we create experiences for people.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: How does the theatrical aspect impact incorporating circus elements whether they’re acrobatics or trapeze? They have to serve a function now. It’s not just there to show “I’m really good at juggling.”
RYAN COMBS: We use theatrical transitions in between each act to set stuff up. For example we have an act of zombies who do a jump rope act where they spin the jump rope and do acrobatic tricks but it’s not a regular jump rope; they’re using guts and intestines to jump rope that they’ve taken from a victim – ripped his guts out and are playing in them and doing tricks.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: I take it are you sort of the straight men for this show, so to speak. Is that a good comparison?
RYAN COMBS: Steve and I are the through line for the show. People can follow our characters. I wouldn’t say that we’re the straight men for the show.
STEVE COPELAND: We’re the outsiders, I would say – the only two people in the cast that don’t belong, in more ways than one. We’re the two outsiders getting sucked into this world and we clearly do not fit in and so a lot of comedy comes from that and in the relationship I’m definitely the straight man to Ryan’s idiot. No offense to the idiot.
RYAN COMBS: I always get type cast…. Steve and I are traditionally circus clowns that that worked in family circuses for years. We performed slapstick routines but we were given an opportunity to do this horror show and we take elements of what we’ve studied for years in physical comedy but we’ve mixed in a lot of verbal comedy so there’s elements of sketch comedy; there’s a lot of elements of improv because every audience is different and so we work off what the audience gives us and we encourage them to shout out whatever they’re thinking at any moment and we react to that. It’s not not improv in the traditional sense of “ give me a scene, give me a location,” but every show is unique because we use improv and then a lot of it is stand up based as well so we mix all these different types of comedy for this show.
STEVE COPELAND: And it is interesting working for adults. It’s an R-rated show – we don’t allow children under the age of 13 because of the horror-violence, because of the the bad language, because of the adult humor. Ages 13 to 17 are allowed with an adult guardian. But you know it is very different in many ways, making an adult audience laugh but then there are a lot of similarities as well. It’s a lot of the same base; it’s just the toppings and ingredients in the in the dish are a little spicier.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: As you go from city to city do you spot differences in audience reactions to adult form of horror-comedy you’re doing? That is one of the things about live theater – you can have this push and pull, “the audience really dug that a little bit more here than this….”
RYAN COMBS: As we tour from city to city, we see differences in the crowd and doing the type of comedy that we do and the type of show that we perform we have the opportunity to be flexible with our material and really make sure that we’re getting local jokes in the show for the people of the area because people in Ohio are going to laugh at different things than the people in South Carolina and we have to be sensitive to that and we are sensitive to that and it’s a lot of fun. What i have noticed also touring from city to city is that we get a lot of repeat business so many people come back because they want to bring their friends. We’ve had people follow the show around all the way from Albuquerque, New Mexico all the way out to California. It’s really nice to have that following, to affect people in such a nice way that they choose to come out and see it multiple times, because we are constantly changing it. New acts come in and perform. We rotate material.
STEVE COPELAND: We’re constantly updating the pre-show area so it’s a show that’s just getting bigger and better as we go along.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Over the course of the last couple decades or more we have had this phenomenon of circuses becoming accepted as an art form not just entertainment. I wonder if you had any thoughts on this.
RYAN COMBS: Yes, circus is regarded a little bit more as an art form now than it has been in the past but that’s not to say that it’s still not out there to entertain. We’re not trying to make a statement here about look at how artistic we are. We want people to come in and have a great time and leave feeling that they had an experience that they couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.
STEVE COPELAND: Yes, even though we could be considered an art form, we still wanted to be accessible to everybody. We don’t want people to think we’re too high-falutin’ and they’re not going to be able to have a good time. The reason we’re here is to make people have a good time
RYAN COMBS: That’s why our prices are affordable; the concessions are affordable, probably less expensive than you would get in a movie theater, and the material in the show is accessible – entertaining and artistic but accessible.
STEVE COPELAND: Yeah you’re gonna see people of all different races, creeds, income types coming to the show and having a good time together and I think that’s circus is one of the last live art forms that is accessible to anyone no matter your background.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: It’s funny you say that because one of the articles I read while researching the subject had somebody lamenting that as the circus has becomes more artistic it’s become this niche thing that’s losing its broad appeal. So clearly Paranormal Cirque does not have that problem. You’re reaching a wide audience, not just people who can afford $150 for a front row seat to Cirque du Soleil.
STEVE COPELAND: Our tickets begin at thirty dollars for adults and the first row seats are sixty dollars so thirty to sixty dollars is our price range – very affordable when you consider the price of going to a movie with concessions and everything and this is two hours of live entertainment plus a 40-minute pre-show on top of that for an experience you’re not gonna forget.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: I wanted to end by asking you both what would you say to someone who’s looking for a scary form of entertainment – like maybe a fan of horror films or a fan of Halloween haunts. Is Paranormal Cirque truly a Circus of Horrors that will appeal to them?
STEVE COPELAND: First of all our haunted pre-show – you get to experience a haunted attraction like in your backyard we’re bringing that to you. You don’t have to wait for Halloween; you don’t have to go to a major city. The first thing you do is experience a haunted attraction.
RYAN COMBS: You’re around the props and the sounds and the atmosphere and the scare actors so that’s something fun for the horror fan.
STEVE COPELAND: And also there’s lots of Easter eggs sprinkled throughout. For instance in the pre-show we have tombstones, and one’s for Murray Futterman, a character played by Dick Miller in the two Gremlins films. All of our tombstones have little in-jokes and references to horror. Ryan and I try and throw references into our comedy and you’re gonna see things in the show that are reminiscent of classic horror themes or movies or literature so if you are into horror you’re gonna get a top-rated show; plus you’re gonna see lots of fan service that’s gonna give you that that recognition and that feeling of “this is my place, these are my people.”
RYAN COMBS: That’s been the nice thing about touring around the country with this show. In maybe another more generic circus, anyone would go and they may have fun, they may be fans of circus, they may not be fans of circus – they’re just going for their kids maybe – but here the people that come to see our show are horror fans. That’s what we get and it’s fantastic – it’s like a convention, where people get together and like the stuff that you like.
STEVE COPELAND: I’d like to add our tent is air conditioned – very important when you’re performing in California in the summer.
RYAN COMBS: Got to keep those chills running!
Hollywood Gothique's review of Paranormal Cirque
1 – Avoid
2 – Not recommended but not all bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
In a presentation filled with demons and vampires, the most amazing thing about Paranormal Cirque is the circus acts themselves, which seem so incredible (in the literal sense of the word) that they might as well be paranormal. There may have been a miscue and a dropped juggling pin here or there, but the artistry and drama of all the performers was so high that it seems unfair to single anyone out in particular. Nevertheless, the arachnid-like female contortionist sent shudders up our spine as she twisted hers. The roller-skating duo defied the laws of momentum – swinging and spinning in ways that seemed guaranteed to send them flying off their small, elevated, circular platform. Best of all was the finale, with two men running inside the wheels of what looked like a demented fairground ride; that was impressive enough, but then one of the men shifted to running outside of the wheel and then topped it off by doing it blindfolded.
The theatrical presentation and the horror theme cleverly set the stage and in some cases enhance the circus acts (the vampire’s kiss at the end of the roller-skating duo’s routine is a genuine frisson), but they serve mostly as darkly decorative frosting atop a truly delicious cake. Horror fans are advised to enjoy a bloody slice. It’s not as scary as a traditional haunted attraction, but for a lower ticket price this Circus of Horrors serves up much more entertainment that the other summer horror attraction in Woodland Hills.
Paranormal Cirque continues in Woodland Hills through Sunday, August 7, with performances daily except Tuesday. The address is 5500 Canoga Avenue. Subsequent shows take place in Redondo Beach from August 11 to 14 and in Thousands Oaks from August 18 to 21, Santa Maria from August 25 to 28, Salinas from September 1 to 5, and Oakland from September 8 – 12. Every location features one performance nightly on weekdays and two shows on weekends. Shows last two hours with a fifteen-minute intermission. Gate opens 40-minutes before showtime for a “pre-show,” which consists of a decorated scare zone inside the entrance tent with the concessions stands.
Tickets prices are in three tiers: Level 3 (back section) is $20 for ages 13-17 and $30 for adults 18 and over; Level 2 (middle section) is $25 for ages 13-17 and $40 for adults 18 and over; Level 1 (front section) is $55 for ages 13-17 and $60 for adults 18 and over. Tickets for all the southland shows can be purchased by online at paranormalcirque.com/tickets, by phone at 941-704-8572, or by visiting the box office, open 10am-6pm on non-show days and 10am-10pm on show days. Admission is restricted to ages 13 and over; those under 18 must be accompanied by an adult parent or guardian.
For more information, including future engagements not listed here, visit the official website: paranormalcirque.com.
Note: The show touring California is technically Paranormal Cirque II. Another version of Paranormal Cirque is on the east coast.
Update 10/10/22: While in the Bay area for Unhinged: Nighshade’s Curse and The Summoning, we took another look at Paranormal Cirque during their stop in Antioch. The October 9 show was, if anything, even better than before, with the performers displaying increased confidence and an extra level of showmanship.
Paranormal Cirque: Woodland Hills Photo Gallery
Photographs copyright by Yuki Tanaka and Warren So
Paranormal Cirque: Antioch Photo Gallery – October 9
Photos copyright by Steve Biodrowski