Freak show  

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli

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.

Contents

History

In the mid-16th century freak shows began to become popular pastimes in Europe. Instead of deformities being regarded as spiritual omens to be dreaded, they became considered as curiosities. A famous example is the exhibition at the court of Charles I of Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo, two conjoined brothers born in Genoa, Italy. While Lazarus was handsome and functioning, his parasitic brother hung in a mass of limbs from his chest.

As well as royal exhibitions, freak shows were popular in the taverns and fairgrounds where the freaks were often combined with talent displays. For example in the 18th century, Matthias Buchinger, born without arms or lower legs, entertained crowds with astonishing displays of magic and musical ability, both in England and later, Ireland.

It was in the 19th century, both in England and the United States, where freak shows finally reached maturity as successful commercially run enterprises. Tom Norman was a renowned Victorian showman, whose travelling exhibitions featured Eliza Jenkins, the "Skeleton Woman", a "Balloon Headed Baby" and a woman who bit off the heads of live rats—the "most gruesome" act Norman claimed to have seen. Other acts included fleas, fat ladies, giants, dwarves and retired white seamen, painted black and speaking in an invented language, billed "savage Zulus". He displayed a "family of midgets" which in reality was composed of two men and a borrowed baby. He operated a number of shops in London and Nottingham, and exhibited travelling shows throughout the country. Most famously, in 1884, Norman came into contact with Joseph Merrick the Elephant Man, a young man from Leicester who suffered from extreme deformities. Merrick arrived in London and into Norman's care. Norman, initially shocked by Merrick's appearance and reluctant to display him, nonetheless exhibited him at his penny gaff shop at 123 Whitechapel Road, directly across the road from the London Hospital. Because of its proximity to the hospital, the shop received medical students and doctors as visitors. One of these was a young surgeon named Frederick Treves who arranged to have Merrick brought to the hospital to be examined. The exhibition of the Elephant Man was reasonably successful, particularly with the added income from a printed pamphlet about Merrick's life and condition. At this time, however, public opinion about freak shows was starting to change and the display of human novelties was beginning to be viewed as distasteful. After only a few weeks with Norman, the Elephant Man exhibition was shut down by the police, and Norman and Merrick parted ways. Treves later arranged for Merrick to live at the London Hospital until his death in 1890. In Treves' 1923 memoir, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences made Norman infamous as a drunk who cruelly exploited Merrick. Norman counteracted these claims in a letter in the World's Fair newspaper that year, as well as his own autobiography. Norman's opinion was that he provided Merrick (and his other exhibits) a way of making a living and remaining independent, but that on entering the London Hospital, Merrick remained a freak on display, only with no control over how or when he was viewed.

P. T. Barnum in the United States was another major figure. He did not enter the circus business until he was 61 years old, when in 1871, in Delavan, Wisconsin he established "P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome," a traveling circus, menagerie and museum of "freaks." It went through various names: "P.T. Barnum's Travelling World's Fair, Great Roman Hippodrome and Greatest Show On Earth," and after an 1881 merger with James Bailey and James L. Hutchinson, "P.T. Barnum's Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger's Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United," soon shortened to "Barnum & Bailey's." This entertainment phenomenon was the first circus to display 3 rings, which made it the largest circus the world had ever seen. The Barnum and Bailey still contained similar acts as to his Traveling Menagerie: acrobats, freak shows, and the world famous General Tom Thumb; - born in Bridgeport to parents who were of medium height, Charles stopped growing after the first six months of his life, at which point he was 25 inches (64 cm) tall and weighed 15 pounds (6.8 kg). He was exhibited by Barnum across America and Europe.

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.

Historical timeline

The exhibition of human oddities has a long history:

1630s
Lazarus Colloredo, and his conjoined twin brother, John Baptista, who was attached at Lazarus' sternum, tour Europe.
1704–1718
Peter the Great collected human oddities at the Kunstkammer in what is now St. Petersburg, Russia.
1738
The exhibition of a creature who "was taken in a wook at Guinea; 'tis a female about four feet high in every part like a woman excepting her head which nearly resembles the ape."
1810–1815
Sarah Baartman (aka "Hottentot Venus") exhibited in England and France.
1884
Joseph Merrick, exhibited as "The Elephant Man" by Tom Norman in London's East End.
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.
1960
Albert-Alberta Karas (two siblings, each half man, half woman) exhibits with Bobby Reynolds on sideshow tour.
1992
Grady Stiles (the lobster boy) is shot in his home in Gibsonton, Florida.
1996
Chicago shock-jock Mancow Muller presented Mancow's Freak Show at the United Center in the Summer of 1996, to crowd of 30,000. The show included Kathy Stiles and her brother Grady III as the Lobster Twins. {Mancow Muller (with John Calkins) Dad, Dames, Demons & a Dwarf Regan Books 2004 pp. 121, 137-147}
2000–2010
Ken Harck's Brothers Grim Sideshow debuted at the Great Circus Parade in Milwaukee, WI. The Milwaukee run included a fat lady and bearded lady Melinda Maxi, as well as self made freaks The Enigma and Katzen. In later years the show has included Half-boy Jesse Stitcher and Jesus "Chuy" Aceves the Mexican Werewolf Boy and Stalking Cat. Brothers Grim toured with the Ozz Fest music festival in 2006,2007 and 2010.
2005
"999 Eyes Freakshow" founded, touting itself as the "last genuine traveling freakshow in the United States." 999 Eyes portrays freaks in a very positive light, insisting that "what is different is beautiful." Freaks include Black Scorpion.
2007
Wayne Schoenfeld bring together several sideshow performers to "The L.A. Circus Congress of Freaks and Exotics," to photograph sideshows folks for "Cirque Du Soleil - Circus of the Past." In attendance were: Bill Quinn, the halfman; Percilla, the fat lady; Mighty Mike Murga the Mighty Dwarf; Dieguito El Negrito, a wildman; fireeaters; sword swallowers, and more.

Modern freak shows

The entertainment appeal of the traditional "freak shows" is arguably echoed in numerous programmes made for television. Extraordinary People on the British television channel Five or BodyShock show the lives of severely disabled or deformed people, and can be seen as the modern equivalent of 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. On The Guardian, 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".

Many modern television programmes of the 'reality TV' genre are in effect a modern equivalent of the old freak shows.

See also


Further reading

  • Martin Monestier, Human Freaks, Encyclopedic Book on the Human Freaks from the Beginning to Today. (In French: Les Monstres humains: Oubliés de Dieu ou chefs-d'œuvres de la nature)





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Freak show" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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