The Return of the Freakshow

By: Doug Anderson (friend of The Course of Horror)

The television program American Horror Story has entered my life twice in the past couple of days, once from a Facebook post of the video of Jessica Lange covering Bowie’s Life on Mars for the new season and then a post on this blog.  I’ve never watched AHS though I do understand from reliable sources that past seasons have been worth it for the camp value alone.  This season’s storyline takes up a classic area of American horror, fetishism, and general weirdness, the freakshow.

Any mention of a freakshow takes me straight to Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks.  Browning made over sixty films including a number of silent movies with Lon Chaney, and of course the Bela Lugosi Dracula released in 1931.  Freaks is an oddly straightforward story of love, betrayal, and vengeance (I won’t spoil it for you but someone does get turned into a chicken.) set in a circus sideshow, a freakshow.  Freaks is best known for its use of real circus performers in the cast, real sideshow freaks including armless, legless, and armless/legless performers as well as pinheads, bearded women, midgets, conjoined twins, an hermaphrodite, and others.  Released in an America reeling from the Depression and quite content with big brassy distracting musical pictures Freaks was an unwelcome addition to the cinematic landscape.  Public outrage was such that the movie was pulled from distribution shortly after its release and shelved for thirty years until it was rereleased in 1962, quickly becoming a cult classic.  Browning made a few more films but never recovered from the failure of Freaks and soon left the industry.

Sideshows including freakshows and geek magic were brought to us by P.T. Barnum (and other circus pioneers) and were immensely popular from the middle of the 19th century into the inter-war period when changes in taste and new entertainment options chased them from the mainstream.  Disability became a medical condition and freaks became patients, and often inmates.  The ability to swallow a large number of needles only to regurgitate them a few minutes later tied neatly along a string faded along with Harry Houdini.  Magic became about furry or feathered animals and female assistants in scant clothing rather than the in-your-face horror of freaks and geek tricks.  Today if you type “geek tricks” into Google most of what you will get back are ways to trick your computer into doing what you want.  Today, the floridly tattooed and heavily pierced person you are most likely to see is making you a coffee.  And the folk with long flowing beards aren’t sitting on a stool in a dark room to be ogled but are hanging out in a hipster bar.

Magicians like Harry Anderson (yes, the Night Court guy) kept geek magic going with things like his thoroughly creepy hat pin through the arm trick.  Penn and Teller brought gory geek tricks into the light often infusing them with a political component.   Add in folks like David Blaine, Criss Angel, and many others, and the geek trick seems alive and well.  With the new season of AHS, maybe the freakshow will stage a comeback too.

If these forms of entertainment are moving back into the mainstream (along with a renewed interest in burlesque), they are doing so at a time when mass entertainments are more and more created within the digital confines of a computer.  Perhaps this new interest in very old forms of horror is a bit of a rebellion against mass produced horror with loads of CGI and makeup effects.  Geek tricks and freakshows are by their very nature real, up-close, and personal – no green screens, no computer graphics, no homogenized plots.  Long hat pins go through arms as blood drips, needles are swallowed, things move under the skin.  Perhaps we are seeing a turn in horror from the mass produced impersonal back to the personal, a time when one performer alone in the dark in a mildewed tent with the smell of sweat, liquor, and fear coming from the audience contrived to horrify and delight as he or she displayed a freakish body in the best sideshow tradition.

(Anyone interested in freakshows can check out Rachel Adams great book Sideshow U.S.A. or Robert Bogdan’s Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit.)

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4 thoughts on “The Return of the Freakshow

  1. I found this post intriguing and thought provoking. It really made me question how horror has evolved and is still evolving. Personally, freak shows and circuses with people with real deformities are a lot scarier than any other form of horror. This is because you can’t convince yourself that it is fake, like you can with a lot of other horror. It is real, and it is staring right at you. This brought me back to the monster theses, more specifically number 5, the monster dwells at the gate of difference. Generally, what makes monsters scaring depends on the cultural setting. The things that make a monster scary tend to be political, cultural, racial or sexual. In the case of freak shows and geek tricks whats scary is that these people are just like us except they are deformed or can swallow or do things that humans are not meant to do. This really drags the viewer in and allows them to put themselves in the situation which makes everything a lot scarier.

  2. When I was younger, I visited Coney Island in Brooklyn, NY often, where are remnants of old shows and attractions remain. One of these was “Shoot the Freak.” I was intrigued by the concept as my dad explained the way that old circus shows used to work, including the horrible exploitation of the people society now recognizes as disabled. This is a different kind of horror because it is based upon reality. The fright people experienced in these shows, the kind in the film “Freaks” shown above, was more disgust and surprise at the appearance of people different then them. Although Doug’s point about the return of a “personal” horror is interesting and perhaps accurate, I don’t support a return of a kind of entertainment which is based upon exaggerating natural phsyical or mental impairments. I am curious to see how the public audience will respond to the new season of AHS, and whether there will be any further discussion on this topic.

  3. It was very interesting to read about how we as a society have mad the switch from putting people with deformities in “Freakshows” into pitying them for their health problems. Did this occur from our ever-evolving need to be like one another? Did this occur from our scientific advancements in both cosmetic procedures and prosthetics? Or did it come from integrating the “freaks” into our society, without knowing how to handle the ways in which they were different from you or I. A close friend of mine, his arm didn’t develop past halfway. He has a partially formed elbow. I watched people who haven’t known what to say to him. His mom taught him from a young age to have a sense of humor about it, as she knew many people he would come across wouldn’t know how to handle it.

    When, and why exactly did we decide to pity, and treat the “freaks”, instead of mock them?

  4. I really enjoyed reading this as it went along with my original post. I find the real Freakshows to be very interesting. It will be interesting to watch the rest of the season of “American Horror Story,” with this background knowledge. I wonder if this season will have any negative backlash as it uses real “freaks” for the performers. By watching this season I believe it makes us look at ourselves and see how society used to ridicule those who are different than the norm and how that still happens. The “freaks” are stared at whenever they leave the circus and go to town. People today still stare at others with deformities or other issues. This season will be a great learning lesson for everyone that watches.

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