Geek Show

Nightmare Alley

Geek shows were an act in traveling carnivals and circuses of early America and were often part of a larger sideshow. The billed performer’s act consisted of a single geek, who stood in center ring to chase live chickens. It ended with the performer biting the chickens’ heads off and swallowing them.

The geek shows were often used as openers for what are commonly known as freak shows. It was a matter of pride among circus and carnival professionals not to have traveled with a troupe that included geeks. Geeks were often alcoholics or drug addicts, and paid with liquor – especially during Prohibition – or with narcotics.

In modern usage, the term ‘geek show’ is often applied to situations where an audience is drawn to a performance or show where the performance consists of a horrific act that is found distasteful but ultimately entertaining by masses. It may also be used by a single person in reference to an experience which he or she found humiliating but others found entertaining. It is used in derision

‘Freaks’ (1932) is a horror film with a long history of controversy because it used real carnival performers. In its original release, it became the only M-G-M film ever to be pulled from cinemas before completing its domestic engagements. In the film noir classic ‘Nightmare Alley’ (1947), based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, Tyrone Power plays a sideshow barker in a seedy carnival which includes a geek biting the heads off live chickens. Power’s character later succeeds as a charlatan mentalist, but then descends into alcoholism and is reduced to falsely portraying a geek as a means of survival in another sideshow. In one of Gresham’s non-fiction books, ‘Monster Midway,’ he details the process of making an alcoholic or a drug addict perform a geek act in exchange for a fix.

The artist Joe Coleman bit the heads off white rats as part of his stage act as Doctor Momboozo in the 1980s. He primarily did a ‘Human Bomb’ show, self-detonating at the end, but also performed with the rodents for his turn as a geek.

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