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.)