Letting their Freak Flags Fly

The sideshow isn’t dead, it’s just more ironic

| Mar.-Apr. 2008

  • Freak Show

  • Freak Show

On the boardwalk, a crowd is gathering around the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. “Come!” shouts barker Scott Baker. “Come and watch our very own Madame Electra get strapped into a board-certified electric chair.”

A tattooed, pierced woman steps to the fore, wearing a revealing, burlesque-style minidress. “Watch as thousands upon thousands of volts of electricity course through her beautiful body, and her little dog, too,” Baker says, pointing to the trembling Chihuahua-Yorkie mix clasped in her hands. “You won’t want to watch. But you will!”

In the 1800s and early 1900s, the traveling circus was one of America’s major forms of entertainment, and part of its moneymaking engine was the sideshow, where bearded ladies, contortionists, giants, midgets, African slaves, and mentally retarded “pin heads” were marketed as “magic,” “exotic,” and “bizarre.”

Today, only a handful of sideshows still exist, playing kitschy carnivals, hipster nightclubs, and rock shows that celebrate a high tolerance for the grotesque.

The 999 Eyes Carnival of the Damned, based in Xenia, Texas, claims to be the first traveling sideshow in over 40 years to feature more than three living human oddities. Its performers—which include a seven-foot-four-inch giant, a one-legged man, a dancing dwarf, a woman tattooed with tiger stripes, a man with a gigantic hand, a Lobster Boy, and a Lobster Girl—want nothing less than to launch a freak show renaissance.

Samantha X, 999 Eyes’ cocreator, claims that her show helps people to reevaluate their conceptions of normality. However, in an age of political correctness and artful irony, modern freak shows still cannot escape certain niggling questions: Are the shows empowering or demeaning? Do they provide social misfits with a refuge and a decent wage, or do they perpetuate dangerous bigotries about the “other”?

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