There was a time when freak shows were commonplace on the regional carnival circuit. When I was a kid, I even saw a couple of them. They were appalling—not only because the conditions these people existed in were so deplorable—but by the very fact that they had to make a living by exhibiting their disfigurements. Advancements in medicine have made many such afflictions a thing of the past. Not only is it politically incorrect in this day and age to exploit them, there just aren't that many of them anymore.
It was at the St. Joseph County Fair in South Bend, Indiana, where I first saw "Popeye" (pictured here). I was fourteen years old. This guy could force his eyeballs out of their sockets and pull them back in again. I can still vividly recall seeing the ocular fluid splashing out into the spotlights when he pulled his eyes back into their sockets after popping them out. It gave me nightmares. There was also the Alligator Woman (who must have had chronic shingles or some other skin disease) and a contortionist, but the image of Popeye is the one that really burned into my memory.
Our family would also travel to Walkerton, Indiana, on the Fourth of July and attend one of those creepy traveling carnivals you'd imagine some young girl would go to at night and never be heard from again. The rides were scary—they felt like they could fall apart at any moment. The Mad Mouse in particular was the roller coaster from hell.
The carnival's sideshow was limited—I think they just had some pathetic pickled "Siamese twins" and the fat man. You'd pay a quarter, walk into a filthy trailer and there he'd be, lying on the bed, looking bored. He'd answer questions if you had any, but I was really uncomfortable. After all, I was standing in a stranger's bedroom and I just wanted to get out.
The next day we went to the town's truck stop for breakfast, and there he was, sitting on a stool (or two), having steak and eggs. I wanted my twenty-five cents back!
Many films have been made featuring "freaks." Legendary director Tod Browning often had his star, Lon Chaney, play physically-challenged characters. Chaney starred with Joan Crawford (in one of her earliest roles) in The Unknown (1927). He played an armless knife thrower who propels the daggers with his feet. Actually, he's only pretending to be armless, but when he falls in love with Crawford, he goes to the doctor to actually have his limbs removed because she's revolted by the idea of being touched by a man!
Now that's one messed-up relationship. It's certainly the inspiration for cult favorite Alejandro Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre (1989), which features a similarly armless woman in a circus and her incestuous relationship with her son.
Browning went on to make Freaks (1932), still the classic of the genre and a film that tries to turn a kind eye to these physically challenged people. The problem is—probably due to the film's vintage— he still tends to infantalize them and includes scenes that invite the audience to chortle warmly as if they're watching monkeys frolic in a zoo.
Still, the wedding party sequence in which the "freaks" welcome the gold-digging trapeze artist (Olga Baclanova)—who marries and plans to murder one of their own (Harry Earles)—is extraordinary. They chant, "One of us! One of us! Gobble, gobble!" to her increasing revulsion. And when they realize she's actually having an affair with the circus strongman (Henry Victor) and is slowly poisoning her new husband, they exact their revenge during a violent nighttime rainstorm, slithering through the mud toward their victim. And of course she gets her just desserts.
Audiences were horrified by Freaks, and Browning's studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, quickly sold it off to exploitation pioneer Dwain Esper, who heavily re-edited it to emphasize its more unsavory aspects, and gave it the offensive new title Nature's Mistakes. Fortunately, the original became something of a cult classic in the 1960s and '70s for stoned college audiences, and the restored version can now be seen on Turner Classic Movies.
Baclanova also appeared in another classic of the genre—The Man Who Laughs (1928), directed by German emigre Paul Leni and starring the great Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). He plays Gwynplaine, the son of a Lord who is punished by the King's men, having a permanent smile carved into his face as a result of his father's treachery.
He joins a traveling carnival to exhibit his "deformity," and falls in love with a blind girl (Mary Philbin from Phantom of the Opera) who is unable to see his face but is drawn to his gentle nature. It is a terrific film, and a shame that Leni (who also directed The Cat and the Canary) died prematurely of blood poisoning here in Los Angeles. The only unintentional laugh for contemporary audiences is that Gwynplaine's dog is named Homo.
Prolific producer David Friedman, who invented the splatter genre with director Herschel Gordon Lewis in 1963 (Blood Feast), remade Freaks in 1967 as She Freak. Some fans say it has real verisimilitude in depicting the '60s carny atmosphere, and that's certainly Friedman's ouevre, but I find it difficult to sit through.
Joan Crawford returned to the circus in 1968 with Berserk!, which has been covered here previously. One of the highlights of the film is a bizarre, cringe-inducing musical number sung by the sideshow performers while Crawford chortles warmly.
Famed cinematographer Jack Cardiff (The African Queen) made a bizarre career move by directing The Mutations (1974), starring Donald Pleasance, Tom Baker (Dr. Who), Julie Ege and Jill Haworth. I tried to watch it in the 90s (on a really miserable quality rental VHS cassette), but it just didn't do anything for me—except that it featured Popeye and the Alligator Woman whom I'd seen during my visit to the St. Joseph County Fair years before! Now that was a "freak"-out.
Although not set in a carnival environment, Universal's train wreck The Sentinel (1977), directed by Death Wish's Michael Winner, features real "freaks" in its (allegedly) terrifying climax. A young model (the gummy-smiled Cristina Raines) moves into a haunted apartment building and is forced to confront the very Gates of Hell, guarded by minions with physical deformities, some of whom were the real deal. This was supposed to be a horrifying conclusion to a really goofy film, but all I can remember is that one of the guys looks like he has testicles swinging from his chin. I don't know if he's really malformed or just a product of Universal's make-up department, but it's pretty hilarious, and the film caught flak for exploiting these unfortunate people.
Actually, the whole picture is of the "so bad it's almost good" variety. Sylvia Miles and Beverly D'Angelo play lovers who live in another apartment, and when Raines first meets them, D'Angelo masturbates vigorously while Miles is out of the room. Later, she plays cymbals topless, which—considering her endowment—made me fear for her safety. I think Beverly would probably like to delete this credit from her resume.
Gil Melle's score is bombastic and continuous. I swear, there's not a moment of silence in the entire film, and "legendary" actors are dragged out for bits—Ava Gardner, Arthur Kennedy, Jose Ferrer, Burgess Meredith, John Carradine, Eli Wallach. A young Christopher Walken even appears in the role of a detective. But it's a hilarious mess, peppered with "hip" '70s gore and nudity.
But Sylvia gets to deliver the memorable line, "Heah, dah-link. Hef a hat and a noisemakah...for zeh pah-ty!" And Miles was destined to appear in another Universal carnival horror, Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse (1981), in which she gives a Happy Ending to the disfigured killer right before he puts her out of her misery.
I thought Alex Winter (The Lost Boys, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) and Daniel Stern's Freaked (1993) was pretty funny, and an unbilled Keanu Reeves, as the Wolf Boy, adds to the fun. But these are all latex creatures, not real freaks (unless you count Randy Quaid—but that just happened recently).
I guess you could consider the Jackass boys to be carnies, especially in the setups involving tiny Wee Man (Jason Acuna) and enormous Preston Lacey, but they have such an endearing camaraderie.
The Freak Show is still alive and well in America, but—shades of David Cronenberg—its performers now have intentionally manufactured physical differences, and the emphasis seems to be on sadomasochism: being suspended from hooks piercing the flesh, forcing liquids into their bodies and expelling them again...well, you get the idea.
Even bodybuilders use the term "getting freaky," which means taking lots of diuretics before a competition to ensure that all the veins and muscle tissues show through their skin.
And now, on with the show!