The Modern Freak Show
There is a long history in the exploration of variants of the human body. It has fascinated the fields of medicine, philosophy, art, and as evidenced by freak shows, even entertainment. The entertainment focus dates far back, including the Olympic games of Ancient Greece beginning c. 776 B.C.E 1. For the ancient Greeks, the ideal body was modeled after these incredible competitors, whose athletic feats were considered to immortalize them in history. The freak show turns that idea completely on its head.
Originally popularized in 16th century England, freak shows feature people whose unusual or “freakish” physical characteristics cause them to stand out. Freak shows as live entertainment for the masses have been dead for decades. On the other hand, intense fascination with the human body is alive and flourishing. Public curiosity about different physical traits and afflictions remains unsated, but the outlet that attempts to fulfill it has changed. It takes a new form in the viral videos and reality television programs that are broadcast today.
The History of the Freak Show
Those born with physical deformities have historically had difficulty living normal lives in society, and been met with a lot of curiosity and judgement. There are cave paintings from the Stone Age recording births of “monsters”, and prehistoric gravestones detailing ritual sacrifice of the supposed infant monsters 2. Clay tablets from the Assyrian city of Nineveh (which was also home to the Epic of Gilgamesh 3) list sixty-two congenital abnormalities and their corresponding prophetic significance. Whether they represented the wrath of God, or divine design, this caused freaks to be heavily scrutinized, profitable, coveted, and simultaneously dehumanized. They became commodities for royals, treasures touched by the divine 4. Dwarves were sought after by the Roman aristocracy, housed in the courts of the Egyptian Pharaohs, and played jester to the royals of Renaissance Europe. Among commoners, those who were malformed were rarely seen, and populated legends, stories, and songs.
During the Enlightenment of Elizabeth I’s reign freaks lost their religious and spiritual attachments, and consequently were no longer held by royals and aristocrats as status symbols or divine treasures. Freak shows became human museums where the public could sate their curiosities about those who had been hidden from them. The public wanted to study them, document them, and marvel at them. One of the most notable examples of those subjected to that early public scrutiny were brothers Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo, one of the best documented early cases of parasitic twins 5. Lazarus, amiable and handsome, earned a place for he and his brother as favorites in the court of Charles I of England. They were not, however, confined to the court exclusively. They marked the transition of freaks from upper class enjoyment to public spectacle. When wandering the streets, Lazarus would cover his brother Joannes dangling from his side with his dramatic cloak to avoid unwanted attention. Joannes, despite having a body comprised of one thigh, a full torso, hands, arms, and a whole head topped with hair, remained mainly unconscious. On occasion Lazarus would reveal Joannes in public, allowing passerby to pinch and prod him. Joannes was even said to have responded to this stimuli, especially contact with his arms, with non-verbal cues such as fluttering his eyelashes or changing his breathing patterns.
The Hottentot Venus was an early predecessor to the traveling circus and sideshow. Saartjie, or “Sarah” Baartman, and another woman from the Khoikhoi of southwestern Africa had their bodies on display as a freak show attraction. The women were showcased for their exotic origins and features, and displayed nearly naked. It was the large buttocks and genitals of the women that captured the most public interest. After her death in 1815, her body was preserved, and continued to be displayed as the Hottentot Venus, fully naked for public viewing until 1974. The story of the Hottentot Venus emphasizes that it was not only congenital disfigurements that caused someone to be labeled a freak. Any physical traits that fell outside of the norm, or the accepted ideals of physicality were pushed to the fringe extreme of being displayed as human oddities. Drawings and artistic depictions of the Hottentot Venus were given exaggerated features to highlight the great level of difference between the societal perspective on the African women on display, and the Caucasian women viewing them.
The Classic Circus Sideshow
It was in the Nineteenth Century that the freak show came to its iconic incarnation as a circus sideshow, and a widespread, commercially successful form of family friendly entertainment in Europe and North America. This commercial popularization was largely the responsibility of P.T. Barnum, the founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus. A masterful marketer and storyteller, Barnum orchestrated shows with a grand assortment of freaks and human marvels, both real and fabricated.
The “Feejee Mermaid” was one of Barnum’s most notorious counterfeits: the upper body of a juvenile monkey stitched to the tail end of a fish, and passed off as a mermaid. He concocted all sorts of elaborate and fantastical origin stories for his performers. A slave he purchased, blind and paralyzed almost completely from head to toe, he claimed had been George Washington’s nurse, aged over one hundred and sixty years old. Barnum’s cast ranged from Chang and Eng Bunker, whom the term “Siamese Twins” were coined after, to Fedor Jeftichew, the dog-faced boy. Barnum’s performers won him hundreds of thousands of customers and dollars. 6
His menagerie reigned supreme during the Nineteenth Century, but as the Twentieth Century came to dawn, and Barnum passed away in 1890, the popularity of the freak show dwindled. Advances in medicine and research provided explanations for congenital conditions and physical malformations. Imaginative and captivating backstories akin to tales of superhero origins were unmasked as lies, and replaced by medical diagnoses. Awe and wonder were replaced by pity for the struggles of the performers, and disgust at their exploitation. The entertainment value was sucked right out of freak shows. By the 1950s, as live shows competed with the rise of the film industry, and easily accessible media journalism exposed corrupt business practices, the freak show fell out of favor with the public into near extinction.
The Show Must Go On
Freak shows may have fallen out of favor with the public, but we never fell out of love. Freaks shows and the Circus of the twentieth century still hold interesting stories and visual fascination. The colorful, celebratory, and odd aesthetic of traveling shows were meant to draw in customers – a tactic that hasn’t lost its success. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk sculpted the third season of American Horror Story (AHS) around the freak show. American Horror Story: Freak Show carries off of nostalgia, and softens the history of the freak show by giving humanity and empathy to performers denied to them in reality, while maintaining the spectacle.
The show gives viewers the side of the story (albeit in a fictional world) the audience of the real freak shows would have missed out on. It provides the perspective from the inside-out, rather than looking in from the outside. The viewer sees the discrimination and judgement the performers faced in situations as simple as dining at a restaurant. While being initially welcomed into the world of the series, the appearance of the characters was used for shock value to drive up the “freak factor”, but as the series continued, the characters cast as freaks became richer than that first impression, filling the roles of friends, parents, lovers, and dreamers. The freak factor later on in the series was derived from the horrific actions of characters, committed largely by able-bodied characters. Whether it was a handsome serial killer, or a father mutilating his own daughter, the show concluded with characters being deemed horrific based off of their own actions rather than their appearances. The “freaks” become full-fledged characters, putting them on a leveled playing field with the rest. An article about the show in The New Yorker reads:
“Freak Show” embodies the philosophy put forth by Fraser in a promotional video for the series: while do-gooders view the sideshow as nefarious, it was, historically, the one place where people with odd anatomies were glamorized, not hidden away. There they could make money, live independently, and find sex and love. The difference between gawking and gazing, fearing and desiring, is not so simple. Murphy’s “freaks”—both the organic and the artificial ones—aren’t lessons for the able-bodied, and when the show does veer into pedantry (“You’re the real freaks!”) it’s at its weakest. They’re divas and lovers and revengers and martyrs, who get to experience the extremes of human emotion. There are enough of them so that they can’t be only one thing. At the show’s best moments, they’re stars, not props. 7
Rather than having the freaks be the spectacle, the heavy horror and mystery of the show, and even the aspect of performance were what makes the show a spectacle, rather than simply the bodies of the freak show performers. The spectacle happened around them, and while affected by it, they were not the sole cause of it. The show also touches on the horror of putting a person’s body on display for their differences, as happened to the Hottentot Venus, by having a subplot focused on characters who targeted the freak show performers in order to place their corpses in a museum and profit from it. In contrast to the emotional, human identities of the characters, the show’s creators revealed how truly horrifying this practice was.
The freak show disappeared largely in part because it came to be considered morally questionable, exploiting and dehumanizing the performers. With ethics on the line, attending freak shows became socially unacceptable. Attending freak shows became an action that warranted judgement, and people became wary of freak shows not solely because of their own consciences, but because of the social shadow it cast on them.
Moving into the twenty-first century, the “unusual” body as entertainment has gone from a spectacle to a private viewing. Media and entertainment are now largely consumed through television and the internet, which can be enjoyed from the comfort of one’s own home. This breathes life into the idea of a “guilty pleasure”, allowing people to enjoy questionable content in private, free from stigma or judgement.
Being a guilty pleasure is an idea that a lot of reality TV shows thrive on. Reality television has gone beyond the extent that American Horror Story has. Rather than reflecting on the history of the freak show, reality shows have brought the freak show back to live in a different medium, with the added layer of giving a story or an issue exposure to people who might relate to it. The network TLC (“The Learning Channel”) is a major producer of these shows.
With the degrading use of the “freak” label behind us, the curiosity about those in unique situations remains, and TLC has capitalized on that. Some of their reality shows continue the trend of exploiting difference for its shock value. For example, their show My Strange Addiction features people who are addicted to strange substances or habits, such as marrying dolls, drinking nail polish, pretending to be a pony, bathing in bleach, undergoing plastic surgery, or eating their dead husband’s ashes. Now that there are explanations for congenital conditions, much of the mystery and curiosity behind the specific issues affecting freak show performers is gone, and we are instead plagued by curiosity about people who exhibit freakish behaviors such as those depicted on My Strange Addiction. There are also shows such as Little People Big World, a show about a family with members diagnosed with dwarfism, a condition that in the past dictated those affected to participate in Freak Shows. Shows like Little People Big World show us that they have moved past the exploitation of freak shows to flourish in society, and television cameras allow viewers to see the details and logistics of it.
TLC also uses their reality shows to help the public understand things that are now considered, like the conditions of freak show performers were, socially unacceptable. One prominent example is the show Sister Wives, which features a polygamist family, and shows what the family themselves consider to be the positives and negatives of their lifestyle. For the Browns, their family dynamic creates a supportive community for all their children and each spouse, but leaves them at risk of legal consequences, and even forced them out of their home in Utah. Another example is the show I am Jazz, starring a young transgender girl and her family. The Transgender community, this year especially, have been a hot topic for discussion, and magnet for curiosity. The show allows the public to understand the issues and perspective of a transgender youth on a very personal level.
This vein of reality TV brings to the public things that they are curious, and largely uneducated about. However, unlike freak shows, the subjects of the curiosity themselves have power in deciding how they are portrayed. TLC shows and other reality programs allow viewers to explore and observe topics and ideas that might be new to them or misunderstood. What TLC does with their shows goes beyond fulfilling curiosity, and tries to provide explanation and answer questions.
If you take away the empathy and go straight for the entertainment value, the modern spectacle that most closely mirrors the spectacle of the Freak Show is viral content online. Whether it’s a twitter blowout between celebrities, or a viral video of a bleating goat standing in for sections of song lyrics, the internet is a breeding ground for publicizing all sorts of attention-grabbing behavior. Like freak show banners that advertised the mesmerizing talents and attributes of performers for paying customers, viral videos and social media frenzies battle for the highest number of clicks, likes, and followers.
Content that receives mass attention ranges from innocent videos of an infant biting his brother’s finger to teen girls getting into fist fights with each other. Picking up where P.T. Barnum left off, social media users continue to push the envelope further and further, testing theirs limits to see what will capture attention. The magic of the online freak show is that it’s guilt free; Rather than being close enough to a performer to see the sweat beading on their forehead, there is the distance of a screen and likely hundreds of miles.
The freak show is part of a long and continuing history of otherizing identities and pieces of the human experience that are hard to understand for those not experiencing it themselves. Slapping of “freak” label on someone, or using a screen to distance oneself from them are ways allow humans to exploit each other’s lives for our own entertainment and education. Some of these forms of distance are more humane, or more cruel than others. With technology and social media making the entire world accessible by a click, there are endless answers to be found, and questions to be created. How outlets for human curiosity will evolve remains to be seen, but the world will be watching.
- The Athlete. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.olympic.org/content/olympic-games/ancient-olympic-games/the-athlete/ ↩
- Thomson, R. (1996). Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York, New York: New York University Press. ↩
- Nineveh. (2015). In New World Encyclopedia. MediaWiki. ↩
- Pednaud, J. (2012, March 13). The Origins of the Freak Show. In The Human Marvels. ↩
- Mundie, J. (2010). Portrait of Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo. Prodigies: Analogous Humans. Web. ↩
- Crockett, Z. (2014, April 30). The Rise and Fall of Circus Freakshows. Priceonomics. Web. ↩
- Nussbaum, E. (2014, December 8). The New Abnormal. The New Yorker. ↩
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