Pillbox

CarnEVIL?

The Morewood parking lot has been narrowed by yellow CAUTION borders, fluorescent wristbands have replaced every band fan’s watch, and the Carnival promising to transport us to “Another Time and Place” has produced the kind of campus zeal typically reserved for non-dreary afternoons and misplaced art sculptures. With funnel cakes and rides that make you puke funnel cakes, Carnegie Mellon’s Carnival replica is a throwback to the traveling caravans of yore. All we need is an accordion-touting primate accompanying a bearded babe singing “Auld Lang Syne” and it will be just the vision Ray Bradbury had when he penned Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Around the world, countries like Denmark and Brazil hold Carnival-esque festivities lively enough to make the most fabulous pride parade cower in embarrassment. There are scary doll masks! Floats as tall as buildings! Dancing better than the Rockettes! So why do carnivals in America conjure up images of coked-out carnies luring vulnerable youngsters to coasters bedecked in duct tape, ready to mangle its unknowing thrill-seekers?

We can blame Final Destination 3 for a lot of things, but not this one. Sure, the edifying film of spring 2006 opens with a high school graduation trip to a carnival ending in a roller ruckus, replete with flying seat cars and seat harnesses in dire need of a recall. But how did the masterminds behind the Final Destination series know to capitalize on this fear as American as hot dogs or the proverbial apple pie?

The inconspicuously titled 1932 film Freaks offers the harshest glimpse into the sheltered world of conjoined twins, 182-year-old sages, and bifocal-wearing little people. The cast of real-life sideshow attractions is a moving testament to the truly unusual specimens haunting the fantasies of reluctant carnival visitors today.

The carnival — specifically, the kind put on at events called “community days” or those that seem to sprout from endless rows of dried crops — has joined the repertoire of scary entities that aren’t so frightening when logically approached, like the dark or Bea Arthur.

The self-explanatory website www.saferparks.org reports: “There is no longer any source of statistical information on injuries related to carnival rides.” It continues, “Buyers should beware. In this case, what you don’t know can hurt you.” They busted out the italics and the boldface, so you know they mean business. But given the barrage of media firestorms that accompany any carnival injury, the public is, if anything, too informed of the risk that accompanies handing your life over to a Tilt-a-Whirl attendant.

A similar by-product of the Culture of Fear was the fervor with which parents across the country scoured their children’s Halloween loot for pins, needles, and expired JuJu beans. Research conducted by author Barry Glassner negated the unwarranted hype, but that won’t stop parents from rifling through Snickers-congested pillow sacks.

So Carnival can be a good time for all when approached with a delicate balance of caution and good-natured carnie fun. Just don’t throw all your cares to the wind. Or your hair, for that matter.

And don’t worry about a couple of carnies. Chances are you can outrun them.

Sure, the rides look a little rickety and workers resemble dejected NFL running backs, but come on: The scariest thing about this year’s Carnival isn’t the beckoning molesters, but the fact that the $40,000 a year we already pay wasn’t enough to cover free-admission rides.