Letting their Freak Flags Fly

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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”?

“It’s spoof, camp, it’s how outrageous can you be,” says retired Syracuse University sociologist Robert Bogdan, describing today’s handful of fringe freak shows. “Freak shows used to be part and parcel of American life. Now it’s a way to mock current tastes.”

Sideshows date back to European fairs, in which people with genetic anomalies and contortionist talents performed. The tradition migrated to America, where entrepreneurs such as P.T. Barnum put people on display in sideshows and “human zoos.”

As the popularity of these attractions reached a zenith, some newspapers began to cover a “freak revolt”–a scandal in fact concocted by Barnum to advertise his show. In lieu of a true revolt of freaks, society began to revolt for them.

In his book Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (University of Chicago Press, 1990), Bogdan outlines how medical technologies improved our understanding of physiological anomalies. Faced with declining public interest, freak shows began disappearing in the 1950s.

Just like any polite crustacean, Lobster Girl usually introduces herself to audience members with a handshake. It’s not until they encounter her clawlike hand, with two opposable digits, that they realize they have met a “mysterious” creature who can conjure “the voices of the deep.”

According to her online bio, “Lobster Girl emerged from the ocean.” In reality, she joined the show after meeting Samantha X and her partner at a party. “They told me they were starting a freak show, and I was intrigued,” she says.

Lobster Girl became the first freak to join the show, which repudiates modern conceptions of health and beauty. Modern medical professionals often encourage parents to correct or treat abnormal conditions in childhood, particularly if the conditions pose health risks–a practice that some freaks think can be as monstrous as the abnormalities it’s intended to cure.

“Doctors pumped our dwarf with growth hormones when she was young and totally fucked her up, telling her she could be a normal height,” says Samantha X. 999 Eyes was founded on the premise that it’s OK to let your freak flag fly.

Samantha X conceived of her freak show while she was teaching an anatomy and physiology class in which she used photos of sideshow freaks to teach about the endocrine system. As she collected stories of freaks from the past, “weird coincidences” began to occur, she says. “The freaks started coming to me.”

After Samantha X put out a call for performers on a college radio program in Eugene, Oregon, an “amazingly beautiful half-woman” showed up, suitcase in hand–soon to be dubbed “Jackie ov all Trades.” Her “mutantstrosity” is that she has only one leg, a short limb with four toes.

Samantha X scoffs at would-be critics. “You take a deformed little girl and you say, ‘You can go to school and work at K-mart, or you can join the circus!’ ” she says. “It’s not like you’re pulling these people into something dark and scary and evil. It’s a beautiful world of magic and imagination.”

But questions of exploitation persist. “There’s a mixed take on it in the disability rights movement,” Bogdan says. “Some people see the humor in it, or see it as a way that freaks fooled the public and took charge of their own lives.”

Oddly, the same medical advancements that have allowed born freaks to correct their conditions have allowed regular people to become “made” freaks–giving themselves forked tongues, claws, fangs, and surgically implanted horns, all of which are common sights at a modern sideshow.

“The freak shows play off people’s discomfort,” Bogdan continues. “You don’t know whether to be sad or scared or enraged. It creates confusion.”

Samantha X thinks her show’s message is empowerment, not debasement. She says her sideshow helps people look at their own oddities and recognize that the strange and bizarre are not something to fear. Having a genetic anomaly is “not necessarily weird or sick or a disease; it’s just a different way that the body works,” she says.

Back at Coney Island, the sideshow runs continuously for several hours at a time. Audiences simply leave when they’ve seen the same act twice or have had enough “shock and amazement” for one day. Despite the performers’ spectacular lack of regard for their own bodies, there is a subtle sense among the crowd that they’ve seen it all before. They can be impressed or disgusted, but they cannot be floored.

“Are you guys nervous?” the blockhead Donny Vomit asks the people in the front row before juggling a chain saw and, he says, “my balls.” The audience members shake their heads. “You should be,” he says. “I’m drunk.”

Donny encourages alcohol consumption throughout the early-afternoon show “to make it better for everyone.” Finally, the main attraction: Madame Electra, the human lightning rod. Mounting the stage, she is strapped into an electric chair.

As the lights dim, Donny binds Madame Electra and fires up the chair. Behind her, a wheel painted with hypnotic spirals spins; cartoonish blue electric volts shoot up from the top of the chair. Madame Electra squeezes shut her eyes in an unconvincing approximation of pain. The audience isn’t buying it.

The theatrics and amateur pyrotechnics crescendo, and the act reaches its climax. Madame Electra opens her eyes and woozily climbs down from the chair. As Donny presents her to the audience, she wipes her brow, pretending to recover from the greatest shock of her life. Filing out into the hazy Coney Island afternoon, the audience pretends to do the same.

Reprinted from Polite, a journal of arcana, deadpannery, and cultural criticism. Subscriptions: $14/yr. (3 issues) from 427 W. Sheridan Place, Lake Bluff, IL; www.politemag.com.

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