My dad refused to let me see the two-headed baby at the state fair when I was a little kid. He told me that the baby wasn’t alive, and that it was in a jar. I remember throwing a tantrum. I was desperate to see the little girl that the cartoony banner depicted making sandcastles at the beach. Dad was WRONG because the banner said she was ALIVE That moment in time stuck with me always. Sideshow performers are in my fiction. They’re in my small collection of old sideshow souvenirs. They’re on my walls in the form of artwork (my friend Sundance drew this, at my insistence). Would I have been scared to death if dad had bought us tickets and taken me into the tent? Possibly. Did I miss something I’d never have a chance to see again? Definitely.
Circus and carnival freak shows and sideshows died out in America in the 1970s. Although human oddities, both made (tattooed people, for example) and born, had been exhibited for profit for centuries, it became politically incorrect to pay to look. It even became illegal to exhibit human oddities in some parts of the country.
On one hand, there were abuses in the freakshow system. Some of the performers were children and the mentally challenged, and they were basically slaves who’d been sold to sideshow promoters by their families. Julia Pastrana (The World’s Ugliest Woman) had a manager so evil that he married her to insure he wouldn’t lose her, and he had her and their child stuffed after their deaths so he could go right on exhibiting them. On the other hand, many performers enjoyed lives they wouldn’t have otherwise had. Instead of being locked in attics or institutions, they made friends, families, and good livings. Most of the people who were angriest about the death of the freakshow were the performers themselves. They’d been stripped of their livelihoods and their lives.
Although Americans could no longer pay to see human oddities at circuses, carnivals, and fairs, the desire to look didn’t disappear. It became a dirty little secret. We were trained NOT to look at people who were different. It was impolite to stare, so we started looking away. Staring was out. The equally rude practice of looking past people who were different like they didn’t exist was in. However, curiosity is the most human of human traits. People still stared, but they stared from the comfort and secrecy of their own homes. People with extra limbs and faces started appearing on television talk shows and specials. Today, it isn’t uncommon for little people and conjoined twins to have their own reality shows. Although the typical, but eccentric, families on most reality shows would never want to be called “freaks,” there are some people over on AMC who are flying their freak flag proudly.
Todd Ray, a former music producer, owns and operates the Venice Beach Freakshow. Part museum, part live performance, Ray exhibits two-headed animals, fire eaters, sword swallowers, a man so covered in body piercing jewelry that he’ll never make it onto an airplane, and born freaks. In the first episode, we learn that the word “freak” is a badge of honor in the Ray family, rather than a red letter of shame. Ray shares some sideshow history with George Bell, the tallest man in the Unites States, while trying to convince Bell to join the show. Ray shows Bell old photographs of giants from sideshows past, and tells of how they were treated like royalty. Ali Chapman, one of the smallest people in America, speaks eloquently on AMC’s website of how empowering her time as the host of Ray’s show has been for her.
The television show does run the risk of being a tad hokey. “One of us,” the chant from Tod Browning’s 1932 sideshow horror movie “Freaks,” makes it into conversation a couple of times. The first episode centers around the two-headed bearded dragon’s birthday party, and the party comes across as an over-the-top celebration for a sleepy one year old infant. I hope that future episodes are a little less talky, letting us see the world of the show rather than telling us about it.
On the bright side, Todd Ray and his family seem to be having a swell time showing us that it’s okay to walk up to anybody and say “Hi,” no matter how different that person is from ourselves. And that isn’t a bad thing at all.