Thursday, August 21, 2008

Freaks & the Fair (Sideshow Anomalies)

As long as there have been circuses, carnivals, and fairs, there have probably been human oddities exhibited for public voyeurism: the freak show. It's not at all PC any more, but there it is.

As science advanced in the 20th century, the once mysterious anomalies were explained as genetic mutations or diseases, and pity rather than fear or disdain became the norm. But deep under the socialized response still lurks a morbid curiosity, a disturbing fascination with nature gone awry.

The real shift has been in venue: off the Midway and onto the internet.

A distinction is made between "born freaks" and self-made freaks. The latter is the most common today (if you don't believe me, check out the tattooed Puff the Magic Dragon). In the late 19th century the fascination with abnormalities surged, partly due to the publication of Darwin's theories of evolution in 1859. During it's heyday, the outright fakes were "gaffed freaks" but medical conditions accounted for most of the authentic "oddities."

The majority of these human marvels displayed themselves for their own reasons and quite often reaped large financial and personal rewards for doing so. Some performers, those not of legal age or mentally handicapped, were exploited against their will.

For most, it was a way to make a living.

Joseph Merrick is familiar to many because of the the 1980 movie The Elephant Man starring John Hurt. Merrick had a disease only identified 100 years after his death. It was not elephantiasis or neurofibromatosis, but an extremely rare hereditary disorder: Proteus syndrome, named after the Greek god who could change his shape.

Some of the conditions were skin-deep: albinos and "piebalds," the latter having the same disease Michael Jackson suffers from, vitiligo.

Excessive hair in the wrong places could earn a gig as the "Bearded Lady" or "Dog Boy." Female beard growth is the result of a hormonal imbalance (usually androgen excess); wolfman hair arises from a rare genetic disorder known as hypertrichosis.

The pituitary gone amuck resulted in exploitable height differentials (before basketball or Mike Myers's movies were employment options). Today there's even a blog devoted to it. But back in the mid-19th century, a woman like Anna Swan had limited career opportunities at 7' 5.5" tall.

At one time "the human skeleton" and "the fat lady" were sideshow draws; today emaciation and morbid obesity are on display for free.

"The Rubber Man," or if female "The Elastic Lady" were contortionists who had Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, an inherited disorder affecting the production of collagen, a connective tissue found throughout the body. In some it allows the skin to be pulled away from the body as if elastic (skin extensibility), in others joint hypermobility.

Congenital anomalies were highly prized.

The archetype is perhaps conjoined twins, the most well known being the 19th century "Siamese twin" brothers Chang and Eng. Today their joined sternum and livers would be surgically separated with ease within the first months of life.

Grady "lobster boy" Stiles was a big draw in this century. His hereditary deformity was ectrodactyly, where the fingers and toes are fused together to form claw-like extremities. The word literally translates as "monstrous fingers."

(Our own Minnesotan Bree Walker was born with ectrodactyly and worked as a TV news anchor as well as roles such as the "Sabina, the Scorpion Lady" in the HBO series Carnivale).

Intersex performers, individuals with both male and female secondary sex characteristics, have had their fans since before the time of Christ. At left is a famous 1st-century BC sculpture: "Reclining Hermaphrodite."

In 1932, Tod Browning used his experience as a former member of a traveling circus to direct and produce Freaks. This horror film about sideshow performers was based on Tod Robbins' short story Spurs. Browning cast real people with deformities rather than using costumes and makeup– unheard of at the time.

Today's performers are for the most part "made freaks." Witness the rise in the puppet look first popularized by that hand sock drag queen Madame. Chin and cheek-submalar implants on skinny women with tight facelifts look like this. Madame should sue!

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