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A freak show is an exhibition of rarities, "freaks of nature" — such as unusually tall or short humans, and people with both male and female secondary sexual characteristics or 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 fire-eating and sword-swallowing acts.


Freak shows were popular in the United States from around 1840 to the 1970s, and were often, but not always, associated with circuses and carnivals. Some shows also exhibited deformed animals (such as two-headed cows, one-eyed pigs, and four-horned goats) and famous hoaxes, or simply "science gone wrong" exhibits (such as deformed babies).

Changes in popular culture and entertainment led to the decline of the freak show as a form entertainment. As previously mysterious anomalies were scientifically explained as genetic mutations or diseases, freaks became the objects of sympathy rather than fear or disdain.

Today, Michiganmarker law forbids the "exhibition [of] any deformed human being or human monstrosity, except as used for scientific purposes". However, in many states in the USA and in other countries abroad one can still see freak shows at carnivals and state fairs, in bars and nightclubs, and on daytime television talk shows.

Historical timeline

The exhibition of human oddities can be seen as far back as recorded history:

1630s: Lazarus Colloredo, and his parasitic twin brother, John Baptista, who was attached at Lazarus' sternum, tour Europe.

1704–1718: Peter the Great collects human oddities at the Kunstkammermarker in what is now St. Petersburg, Russia.

1738: The exhibition of an exhibit 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."

Late 18th century: The science of teratology changed the belief that freaks were evil omens and the work of Satan or witches. Instead, people believed the theory that freaks were part of God's great order of creatures.

1810–1815: Saartjie Baartmanmarker (aka "Hottentot Venus") exhibited in England and France.

1829: Chang and Eng, "the original Siamese twins", were exhibited in America.

1839: J.G. Milligan writes "curiosities of medical experiments" in which freaks are described.

1844: P. T. Barnum arrives in London to exhibit Tom Thumb, the famous midget.

1860: Hiram and Barney Davis are presented as Wild Men of Borneo. The guide book for Barnum American museum list 13 human curiosities. Zip the Pinhead begins his six-decade career with Barnum.

1870–1890: Dime museums are at the height of their popularity, with the freakshow as the main attraction.

1876: Wild men of Borneo, wild Australian children, man-eating fiji mermaids, and the woman are exhibited at the first World's Fair in Philadelphia.

1880: First freakshow at Coney Islandmarker.

1881: The Conjoined Tocci Twins are exhibited in Vienna, billed as "The Greatest Wonder of Nature".

1884: Freak recruiting becomes a career and full time occupation.

1889: British medical journal describes Myrtle Corbin, the "four-legged girl", and verifies that both sets of reproductive organs as workable and capable of birthing children.

1890: The Jones twins, Siamese twins joined at buttocks and sharing a rectum die on carnival tour at fifteen months old.

1893: At the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago a woman with a parasitic twin was shown in a stage show as a result of her father's abuse of alcohol.

Late 19th century: The theory that freaks are biological throwbacks to earlier races of humans and apes is introduced. The theory of maternal impression attributes traumatic or significant events experienced by the pregnant woman as an explanation for deformities.

Early 20th century: The resurgence of Mendel’s law of genetics coupled with Darwin's Origin of Species introduced the idea that freaks could "taint the gene pool".

1904: Silbey devises the "Ten-In-One" show and creates jobs for talkers.

1908: An article in Scientific American introduces concept of freak exhibitions being inhumane and barbaric.

1915: San Francisco exposition includes a midget village and dime museum freakshow.

1922: "Professor" Sam Wagner starts the World's Circus freak show at Coney Island. General public can read articles in popular press explaining the diseases behind oddities.

1925: Freaks can be seen performing on the vaudeville stage.

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 was widely unsuccessful until its re-release at the 1962 Cannes Film Festivalmarker.

1933: Chicago Expomarker features a pit show with a "live two-headed baby" in a jar of formaldehyde.

1940: The three-legged man, Frank Lentini, opens a freakshow.

1950: Historical sideshow died as public demands freaks be given "dignity" and not exhibited, at this time many went into institutions or on the welfare system.

1952: The "Human Torso" is still on exhibit.

1960: Albert-Alberta Karas (two siblings, each half man, half woman) exhibits with Bobby Reynolds on sideshow tour.

1972: At north fair Sealo and the dwarf Pete Terhune confront charges against them for exhibiting themselves. The charges equated freakshows with pornography

1980s: Bobby Reynolds is arrested for exhibiting pickled punks.

1983: Coney Island USA, founded by Dick D. Zigun, opens Sideshows by the Seashore, starting a sideshow revival in Coney Island.

1984: Freak show performer Otis Jordan (the frog boy) is barred from exhibiting himself at the New York State Fair on the basis that the exhibition of human oddities is exploitative. Barbara Baskin, a "disability rights activist," led this fight and Otis was out of a job for two years before he beat the case and could perform again.

1992: Grady Stiles (the lobster boy) is shot in his home in Gibsonton, Floridamarker.

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}

1998: The Brazilian TV show "Ratinho Livre", whose main performer was Carlos "Ratinho" Massa, became a kind of freak show, exhibiting mainly children with serious physical anomalies, such as hundreds of facial tumors (Eleandro, the Elephant Boy), tails, amputations, et cetera. Later, near 2000, the Brazilian justice prohibited such appearances on TV shows.

2000–2008: Ken Harck's Brothers Grim Sideshow debuted at the Great Circus Parade in Milwaukee, WI in the summer of 2000. 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. Bros. Grim toured with the Ozz Fest music festival in 2006 and 2007.

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.

2005: "The King of the Sideshow" Ward Hall continues exhibiting fairground shows after over 60 years in the business.

Lobster Boy known as the 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.

2008:Black Scorpion joins the cast of Coney Island's Sideshows by the Seashore.

Modern freak shows

The entertainment appeal of the traditional "freak shows" is arguably echoed in numerous programmes made for television. Thus Extraordinary People on Five or BodyShock on Channel 4 show the life of severely disabled or deformed people, and can be seen as the modern equivalent of the 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 carry 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".

Similarly, Stephen Fry attacked Channel 4 documentaries such as "The Man With A Nose Growing Out Of His Bottom" or "The Girl With 14 Nipples" claiming that "[the channel] was in danger of descending into a 'freak show'."

In media

  • Freaks, Tod Browning's 1932 film, centers on the people in a freak show who wreak their revenge on the able-bodied circus-performing couple who exploit them.
  • Katherine Dunn's novel Geek Love deals with a family of genetically engineered circus freaks.
  • Freaked, a 1993 comedy film about mutated victims to an amoral entrepreneur.
  • The song Devil Baby by Mark Knopfler deals with freaks and freakshows.
  • The book Cirque Du Freak, by Darren Shan.
  • Tom Waits' song Table Top Joe is based on the life of freak show performer Johnny Eck.
  • Twiztid's album Freekshow.
  • Silverchair's album Freak Show.
  • Britney Spears' song "Freakshow" from her album Blackout
  • Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, is told from the standpoint of a wounded WWI soldier who requests to be put in a freak show to demonstrate the monstrosties of war.
  • There is a song called "Freakshow" by the industrial metal band Dimension f3h.
  • John Renshaw had a sports radio show called "The Freak Show" on 810 AM in Kansas City.
  • A fanmade video entitled "Dark Woods Circus", created using the Japanese program Vocaloid, features several Vocaloid characters as freakshow performers; namely a straitjacket-wearing cannibal, a 'deformed diva', and a two-headed person.
  • Progressive rock bank Pendragon released a song called "The Freak Show" in 2009 Pure album
  • The 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates were nicknamed "The Freak Show" due to their ability to compete for the National League Central Division Title while possessing an unspeakably low, $9 million pay roll.
  • The 6th series of TV show South Park featured an episode entitled Freak Strike which commented on the appearance of people with rare disorders on the talk show Maury.

See also

Read also

  • 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).


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