We didn’t go to the state fair every year, but we went a lot of years. Being from Detroit, and with a dad who worked for Chrysler, we always had to stop at the pavilions of the various auto companies and collect brochures. On several occasions, we were there because my sister and/or brother were playing the guitar at one of the performing venues. On occasion, we got to go on rides, though my one experience riding the Wild Mouse put me off rollercoasters for some years thereafter. And let’s not forget the livestock competitions. Being raised in the east side neighborhood of a big city, our interaction with livestock was essentially nonexistent, so seeing the various sheep, cattle, pigs, et al on display was a thrilling, albeit smelly, experience.
But I’m here today to talk about the Freak Show. Yes, I know that’s a coarse, unfeeling way of referring to some of my fellow humans, and it was certainly not a term that appeared on any signs at the fair, but their term for that area (I believe they called it “The Sideshow”) was too vague and coyly euphemistic for my taste, so I’m going to call it what it was.
The first thing you noticed was the posters. They were huge and colorful, painted in a detailed, fantastical style that was old-fashioned even when I was a kid. They depicted a gallery of bizarrely misshapen, conjoined, scantily clad, and/or inappropriately hairy individuals who looked as if they’d been plucked from the shadowy corner of some netherworld, or perhaps from the pages of some twisted work of fiction that you would not feel good about having read. All in all, the place seemed to be filled with a promise of both titillation and the expanding of one’s mind. I lingered as long as I could whenever I saw those posters, staring at them and letting my imagination run wild.
Another factor that created a great deal of atmosphere was the barker on his loudspeaker. His voice was a low, loud, well-articulated monotone, saying things like, “See the Monkey Boy. Found in the jungles of South America, unable to utter a word of any human language. He’s real, folks. He’s alive…” The slight distortion of the barker’s voice as it came through the speakers only served to heighten the excitement; to seal the promise of a look into a forbidden world.
There was, I should mention, zero chance that I was going to be allowed to go in there and behold these wonders in the flesh. My dad made it crystal clear that he was not going to waste his money on that nonsense. What little else he said about it consisted mostly of assurances that what one might see in those tents bore little resemblance to the posters, and that it was nothing more than a way of cheating suckers out of their money. In retrospect, he spoke as if he’d been victimized by the sideshow somewhere in the dim past, but it never occurred to me at the time to press him on the matter.
There was something else about the atmosphere in that area that set it apart from the rest of the fairgrounds. It was the people as they went in and came out. Even as a child, I noticed that the clientele skewed male compared with the general fairgoer demographic. We can debate the reasons for that another day, though several potential explanations come to mind.
The other thing I looked for was the expression on people’s faces as they exited the tents. Generally, the look on their faces was blank and inscrutable, whereas the look on those entering was more eager and anticipatory. I tried to reason it out. Maybe they looked that way because their senses had been overwhelmed by the sights they’d just seen. Maybe they were still processing these unimaginable wonders. Or maybe my father was right about the whole thing being a scam, and these people weren’t willing to betray the fact that they’d been victimized by their own shameful curiosity. All in all, it made me suspicious because, in my mind, the idea of entering those tents and beholding those sights seemed to hold the promise of a life-transforming event.
I made myself a promise back then. I promised myself that when I was old enough to attend the fair on my own, I would lay down my money and take in the freak show once and for all. My father needn’t ever know, nor need he fret about the money I’d spent or the wisdom I might have gained from the experience. It’s a promise I have not kept.
As it turns out, I’ve never attended the state fair since I was a teenager, nor any other carnival that advertised such attractions. At this point, I’ve released myself from that long-ago promise. By now, I’ve seen plenty in books and on television about birth defects, their causes, their treatments, and the unhappiness some of those defects may cause. I’ve also read and seen plenty about the history of freak shows, so the bloom is off the rose with regard to my interest in seeing such shows in person. Heck, I’ve even seen the 1932 film Freaks. I would recommend a screening of the film to anyone with a taste for the bizarre – or a taste for old movies. Much of the original footage was edited out in the 1930s and is presumably lost forever, but what remains is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Many of the deformities and conditions on display in these shows are treatable and correctable nowadays, so the freak shows of yesteryear only take place on a minuscule scale now. And besides, we now have CGI movies that can easily create wonders and monstrosities far beyond anything you’d ever have found at a humble carnival. But remember: People haven’t changed all that much. They still want to have their minds expanded. They still want to be titillated. And they’re still suckers. Take a spin through your favorite web sites and social media sites and you’ll still find plenty of folks offering links to amazing, fantastical visuals and forbidden knowledge. And they’re real, folks. They’re alive…