Freak Show

freaks by sachin teng

A freak show is an exhibition of biological rarities, referred to as ‘freaks of nature.’ Typical features would be physically unusual humans, such as those uncommonly large or small, those with both male and female secondary sexual characteristics, people with other extraordinary diseases and conditions, and performances that are expected to be shocking to the viewers. Heavily tattooed or pierced people have sometimes been seen in freak shows, as have attention-getting physical performers such as fire-eating and sword-swallowing acts.

Freak shows were popular in the United States from the mid 19th to mid 20th centuries, and were often, but not always, associated with circuses and carnivals. Some shows also exhibited deformed animals (such as two-headed cows, one-eyed pigs, and four-horned goats) and famous hoaxes, or simply ‘science gone wrong’ exhibits (such as deformed babies).

Changes in popular culture and entertainment, and changing attitudes about physical differences, led to the decline of the freak show as a form of entertainment. As previously mysterious anomalies were scientifically explained as genetic mutations or diseases, freaks became the objects of sympathy rather than fear or disdain. Laws were passed restricting freak shows for these reasons. For example, Michigan law forbids the ‘exhibition [of] any deformed human being or human monstrosity, except as used for scientific purposes.’ However, in many places freak shows are still popular features.

The exhibition of human oddities has a long history. In the 1630’s Lazarus Colloredo, and his conjoined twin brother, John Baptista, who was attached at Lazarus’ sternum, toured Europe on display. In the early 18th Century Peter the Great collected human oddities at the Kunstkammer (the first museum in Russia). In 1884 Joseph Merrick, exhibited as ‘The Elephant Man’ by Tom Norman in London’s East End. In 1932, Tod Browning’s Pre-Code-era film ‘Freaks’ tells the story of a traveling freakshow. The use of real freaks in the film provoked public outcries, and the film was relegated to obscurity until its re-release at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival.

The entertainment appeal of the traditional “freak shows” is arguably echoed in numerous programs made for television. Thus showing the life of severely disabled or deformed people can be seen as the modern equivalent of the circus freak shows. However in order to make the shows respectable, the subjects are usually portrayed as heroic and attention is given to their family and friends and the way they help them overcome their disabilities. Chris Shaw however comments that ‘one man’s freak show is another man’s portrayal of heroic triumph over medical adversity’ and carries on with ‘call me prejudiced but I suspect your typical twentysomething watched this show with their jaw on the floor rather than a tear in their eye.’

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