Preston has produced its fair share of performers, from Corrie stars to wrestlers. But few are as ghoulish as Circus of Horrors ringmaster Doctor Haze, whose latest macabre spectacle returned to his home city on Sunday.Advertisement
Haze founded the Circus 15 years ago and the troupe has since toured major venues and festivals throughout Europe, South America and Asia. But, for Haze, nowhere rivals the city where he lived until the age of 11.
“Preston is absolutely my home,” he says. “Best chips in the world.”
The transition from Preston schoolboy to sinister leader of the UK’s longest-running adult circus may seem an unlikely one, but Haze’s upbringing was far from typical. His father was a fire-eater and he was born into the circus.
“When I was less than one, we were up in Scotland and my dad did a runner and left my mum in a van with me – a screaming kid – and a dog called Shep,” he says.
The circus allowed Haze and his mother to tour with them for the rest of the season before returning them to Preston, where his mother had worked.
Haze lived on Avenham Road until the age of five before moving to Ingol. He returned recently only to find that his childhood home had been demolished.
“They thought ‘the devil’s child lived here’!” he jokes. “So they knocked it down.”
Haze’s parents reunited when he was 12. His father, recently released from prison, found the family employment as mind-readers and fire-eaters with an Irish circus.
“My mum wouldn’t let me light a match, let alone eat fire!” says Haze. “But I was a fire-eater within a day.”
When he was 16, his mother returned to Preston. Haze, who felt he had found his calling, remained in the circus. He continues to visit the city frequently.
“I don’t have family in Preston anymore,” he says. “But I have friends, great friends.”
And, of course, there is the lure of his precious Preston North End. Haze has remained an avid supporter and attends matches whenever possible, despite a hectic touring schedule.
His loyalty is unwavering: “Even despite us being at the bottom of the league and even with Blackpool being in the Premiership, it’s Preston until I die.”
The Circus last visited Preston in January 2010, on the same day that PNE met Chelsea in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Haze watched the match at Deepdale, returned to the theatre to perform as the demonic ringmaster, popped to the pub afterwards and topped the day off with a visit to a local chippy.
It was, says Haze, the perfect day – despite PNE’s defeat.
Haze founded the Circus in 1995 and the show debuted at Glastonbury the same year, a performance which prompted John Peel to advise: “That looks fantastic, but never trust a man in a funny hat.”
The Circus has amassed a devoted following over the years. Among the acts which consistently draw the crowds are the diminutive Captain Dan, whose shenanigans with a hoover will not soon be forgotten, and Hannibal Helmurto, the Circus’ resident sword swallower who is able to displace his ribs.
The latest show, The Four Chapters from Hell, was created to mark the Circus’ 15th anniversary and visited Preston’s Guild Hall on Sunday night. It returns to Lancashire to play Burnley Mechanics on 10th February.
Fittingly, it promises to “take you on a journey through all four of the Circus of Horror incarnations” from an asylum in France, via Mexico’s Day of the Dead, to Victorian London.
“If you’ve never seen it before it’s going to completely blow your mind,” says Haze.
Audience members will be treated to Helmurto attempting to swallow a sword attached to an electric drill. Other stomach-churning treats include knife-throwing, trapeze artists and a female contortionist performing archery with her feet.
The ensemble’s enduring success, says Haze, is easily explained: “One of the great psychological outlets is that we like to be scared but not hurt, and that’s exactly what we give them at the circus.”
A cross between burlesque, rock musical and B-movie gore, the show is not for the faint-hearted. Its official website warns “children, people of a nervous disposition, chavs and sissies” to steer clear.
“There’s been the odd occasion where people see the word circus, think they’re going to see Billy Smart and bring kids,” admits Haze. “But most of the time people expect to be shocked.”
And, as Preston’s unemployment figures continue to rise, what advice would Haze give to locals hoping to follow in his footsteps and run away with the circus?
“I’d say do it,” he says. “Perhaps we should all start thinking about having a good life. You only have one chance at it. Let’s make it great.”