It comes as you walk down the carnival midway, smelling the cotton candy and corn dogs in the air, taking in the bright, blinking lights of the ferris wheel and Tilt-A-Whirl. Suddenly, from off to your left, you hear the cry. It’s like a siren song, enticing you to diverge from your determined path towards the funnel cakes.
“Step right up, step right up!” a brightly-dressed woman in a T-shirt calls. She gestures at a large mallet near her feet, and her next words sound like a challenge directly to you. “Try your luck! Nobody’s ever reached the top!” she grins. The goal is to hit the button on the platform hard enough that it rings the bell at the top of the tower.
You know in your gut that it’s incredibly difficult to ring the bell. You’ve seen plenty of people try, and your common sense tells you that the game is likely built to be nearly impossible. You’ll probably fare as well as everyone else that’s stepped up: not well.
Still, you’re not everyone else. You’ve been getting to the gym just fine. So you fork over $3 and give it a shot. You hit the platform with all your might, and the pellet inside shoots halfway up the tower. It doesn’t even make a ping before it falls back down. Maybe you weren’t warmed up.
Now, you have a choice: Try again, or get that funnel cake you’ve been waiting for. Either way, you’ll be shelling out more money than you wanted to. You start to pull out three more dollars.
From Carnelevare to Carnival
Carnivals certainly have fascinating, if somewhat surprising, origins. The earliest carnivals, which drew from pagan festivals of years past, were instituted by Italian Catholics in the 18th century as a way to get out all of their merrymaking prior to the strict Lenten season. In fact, the word “carnival” can be traced back to the old Italian word carnelevare, which means “taking meat away.” It references the Catholic practice of abstaining from red meat for the 40 days before Easter.
The tradition spread to the French and the Spanish, and then to the Caribbean as Europeans invaded—and brought slavery to—the Caribbean islands in the 18th century. In Trinidad and Tobago throughout said century, two concurrent festivals took place: Fat Tuesday celebrations organized by the European immigrants, which were characterized by “dinners, balls, concerts and hunting parties,” and Canboulay, a parade of sorts created by freed slaves that reenacted the atrocities of slavery through music, chanting, and dancing. Over the years, the European and African traditions converged to form the basis of the modern Caribbean carnival.
Many of the elements of these early carnivals still exist in the carnivals of today: colorful costumes with headdresses and feathers, dancing and music, and generally raucous behavior.
In the mid 18th century, fairs began popping up in the continental United States, which were then still only territories. The first fair may have been York Fair. In 1765, Thomas Penn, son of Pennsylvania founder William Penn, granted the people of York, Pennsylvania, a charter to hold a two-day agricultural market on the town commons. The event was meant to recognize the city’s growth and celebrate the year. In 1853, the York County Agricultural Society expanded the fair to three days and purchased a tract of land on which it could be held—the first-ever fairgrounds in the U.S., according to the fair’s website.
Fairs quickly spread across the country. In 1893, the Chicago World’s Fair—ironically celebrating the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the Americas—paved the way for American “traveling” carnivals, according to the South End Historical Society. Its midway, “a mile-long strip of parkway,” was populated with games of chance, mechanized rides, sideshow attractions, and the world’s first ferris wheel.
The World’s Fair sold over 25 million tickets, and it became a cultural touchstone. It wouldn’t be until 11 years later, with the St. Louis World’s Fair, that America would hold another exposition of that scale.
Perhaps sensing a countrywide thirst for fairs after Chicago’s ended in October 1893, small traveling carnival companies began forming, hoping to bring the allure of the fair directly to the people.
Most of those early carnivals struggled to reach audiences outside of major urban centers. It’s possible, though not confirmable, that the carnival midway games started becoming rigged in order to bring extra money in. As reported in the California-based Healdsburg Tribune in January 1947, a pair of radiomen “exposed a number of ‘rackets’ which they said were common in circus and carnival concessions,” during a weekly Kiwanis Club meeting. The rackets ranged from rigging wheels of chance to short-changing customers.
“It’s your money,” one of the men told the Healdsburg Tribune, “and you can have a lot of fun with it, but you can’t win when you play a carnival game of chance.”
How could scams like these happen right under our noses? Well…
That’s carny talk.
Today’s carnivals might not contain the same novelty as they once did, but we are still captivated by them. “Some people just see carnivals as wholesome family-oriented fun: rides, games, prizes, food—no different than an amusement park,” says Sarah Kate Istra Winter, author of The Secret History of Carnival Talk. “But there have also been many people throughout the years who have picked up on a somewhat darker and more magical side of the carnival.”
Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, HBO’s Carnivale and FX’s American Horror Story: Freak Show are some examples of modern popular culture’s fascination with the freak shows, fortune tellers, and belly dancers of early carnivals. “Some of this draws entirely on the mystique of the past and elements of the carnival that no longer exist,” Winter says.
Winter’s fascination with carnivals started when she was 13. Her grandparents introduced her to “Carny”: the secret language they had learned while traveling with the carnival during the Great Depression. “It wasn’t really a fully functional language, but rather a ‘cant’— used to hide information from outsiders—and worked kind of like Pig Latin by distorting regular English,” says Winter. “I took to it right away and immediately taught a few friends so we could use it in the way teenagers do—talking about people without being overheard, that kind of thing.”
Years later, when Winter found an album of her grandfather’s pictures from the carnival, it inspired her to explore the history and the origins of the language. In the course of writing her book, Winter discovered that Carny originated as far back as the 1890s and was gaining wide use by the beginning of World War I. “Carnival talk was actually entirely for the use of the workers at the carnival, not those attending,” she says. “This is a way of modifying English to make it somewhat unintelligible to outsiders.”
Winters continues: “The basic idea is to insert a sound—I learned it as ‘earz,’ but it can also be things like ‘eez’ or ‘iz’—before every vowel sound in a word, syllable by syllable. … When listening to someone else speak Carny, the easiest way to decipher it is to try to just drop out the ‘earz’ sounds you are hearing.”
So “cat” becomes “cearzat.” “Clown” becomes “clearzown.” Adhering strictly to the rule, “carnival” would be “cearzarnearzivearzal.” Yet Carny varied from group to group.
“My grandparents actually said they only used to modify the first syllable of a word, because it tended to be used for very simple, quick sentences (in front of the rubes), and they never needed to make it more complicated … When I researched the book, I learned that it was done both ways in various carnivals.”
Carny allowed the carnival workers to hide the truth of their activities from the populace. “Having a secret language is a necessity to avoid discovery. So while carnival talk did not entice people, it did help the carnies to ensure that the customers never knew about the shady back-end of things,” Winter says.
What’s more, just as with any shared language, carnival talk was very important for the carnies themselves. “It helped to increase group solidarity and identification, just as slang always does in various subcultures,” Winter says. It wasn’t long before permutations of the language were being used to conceal a wide array of activities, from criminal dealings to show business.
In fact, Winter says the legacy of carnival talk is still around today, most notably in professional wrestling and hip-hop. “Recently there was a pretty popular wrestler named Kizarny, whose whole schtick was speaking in Carny,” she says. “But probably the most widespread descendant of carnival talk is the way it transformed after making its way (via urban underground/criminal culture in the ’70s) into hip-hop—becoming most famous with Snoop Dogg and his ‘izzle’ talk.”
“So you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance.”
Today’s carnivals have come a long way from their origins. Advances in technology have made carnival games more fun and enticing than ever: They now involve lights, sounds, moving targets, and more. But are they still rigged against the consumer? It depends on what you mean by rigged. There are several different types of carnival games, from those of chance to those of skill. In order to be considered unfair, all a game has to do is appear winnable but actually be impossible to conquer.
The above video shows investigators from New Jersey’s Legalized Games of Chance Control Commission inspecting a boardwalk in Point Pleasant. While the establishment is more in compliance than one might think, the commission still finds a variety of violations, from minor infractions, such as darts missing fins, to major violations, like uneven basketball hoops. In one of the most damning segments of the video, investigators try—and fail—to get a claw game to grasp a chest with a cell phone inside. The claw contained smooth metal edges that made grasping the box nearly impossible. You can check out the commission’s list of certified games here.
But not all carnival games are rigged, says Danielle Ferrantello, CEO of Adrenaline Entertainment, an entertainment company based in Woodbury, New York. Adrenaline Entertainment’s main business comes from private functions like birthday parties and corporate events. Their games, she insists, are all legitimate.
“The games I have definitely can’t be rigged,” says Ferrantello. Most of the games she owns are tabletop games. They all remain in her possession, and she knows that tampering with them is impossible.
Still, it’s possible to have a game that is so difficult to win that it skirts the line between legitimate and illegal. “None of them are really made so it’s easy [to win],” she says. As an example, she cites the game “Cover the Spot,” in which players have one chance to drop five small circles onto a larger circle that must be completely covered in order to win.
“That’s almost impossible [to win],” she says. “It depends on the difficulty of the game … I think a lot of it is luck.”
That illusion of seeming easy while actually being very difficult is what keeps people coming back to the carnival, Winter says. “I think part of the excitement is knowing the games may be rigged to some degree, which comes with a challenge to try to beat the con.”
Ferrantello agrees that the possibility of winning prizes is what keeps people coming back. That, and the potential glory. “[People] like that [others will] watch them possibly do the unthinkable.”
Winter says that the appeal of going to the carnival will always be there.
“Some things never change—the carnival is still full of tricksy, dishonest, rough characters who inspire a sort of thrill,” she says. “And more importantly, it’s an ephemeral event, raised in a day and gone in a week or two.” That mixture of excitement and the potential risk of inviting strangers into your town is part of the appeal.
In short, carnivals will always straddle the line between the tangible and the fanciful. “There’s a feeling with a carnival that it might not be entirely solid or real, that magic could still happen in the cracks,” says Winter. “You may still be able to get your fortune told, you can have your face painted and become someone else, get lost for a moment in a hall of mirrors, or delightfully scared in a spooky ride. There’s a liminal quality that isn’t found in many other places in our brightly lit, modern world.”