I once spent time with a visiting American freak show. I was young. I did not know what to expect from this unusual group of people. What I found surprised me.
A number of the cast members had disabilities. They were mostly physical disabilities that made them look extraordinary to their audiences.
Cast members without disabilities were at a distinct disadvantage. They had to do painful and sometimes dangerous things to make themselves look extraordinary. They covered themselves in tattoos or piercings. Others deliberately over-ate. Others had horns surgically implanted under their skin to turn themselves into freaks.
This privileging of disabled bodies over non-disabled ones continued backstage. Members of the cast and crew were not shy about asking why I walked with a stick. But their questions differed from the ones I was used to.
No one asked me what was wrong with me. Instead they asked me if there were any special tricks I could do. They didn’t want to know how my disability disadvantaged me. They wanted to know if it allowed me to do things that other people were incapable of. They wanted to know how my disability made me special.
A new way of seeing myself
For me, this was a whole new way of seeing myself. I was a young woman. I was fresh out of a mainstream high school. This troupe of self-declared freaks was my first introduction to the disability community.
In the years since, I’ve come to realise that the disability community is large, vibrant and diverse. But my initial memories of the warm and welcoming world of the freak show have stuck with me. They led me to ask the question: Can freak shows be a positive thing for the disability community?
Freak show history
People with disabilities have worked as entertainers for centuries. Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs often used blind musicians in their courts. Ancient Mayans hired people of short stature to work as dancers and acrobats. Travelling freak shows reached the height of fame through the 18th and 19th centuries.
During this time, much of the available work was manual labour. It was typically on farms, ships and mines. Later it was in factories. But this work was unavailable to many people with a disability. Before the introduction of government welfare, death from poverty and starvation was a real possibility. In America, many cities even had
ugly laws. These laws prohibited people with obvious disabilities from being seen outdoors within the city during daylight.
Wealth and fame
Working in freak shows was a way out of poverty for some people with a disability. Some were well paid. Some also became celebrities. They had the fame and adulation of modern-day rock stars. They were known as
human prodigies. They were valued for their scientific interest as well as entertainment value.
But fame and money can attract unscrupulous people. Some prodigies were exploited. People who were young, had an intellectual disability or communication difficulties were particularly vulnerable.
I imagine that freak shows could have had a positive influence on people with a disability in their audience. Before the days of television and radio, I think a visit from a freak show could have been a life-changing experience for people with a disability. For isolated people, it could have been the first time they had seen anyone else who looked like them. They would have discovered a vibrant disability community.
In the 18th and 19th century, freak shows were popular forms of entertainment. But in the 20th century, they nearly died out. Many people assume that audiences outgrew their fascination with viewing unusual looking people. But this was not the case. Freak shows almost died out as a direct result of the Holocaust.
Over 200,000 people with a disability were killed in the Holocaust. A further 400,000 were forcibly sterilised. This decimated Europe’s disabled population. Many former members of freak shows were killed.
Even in countries such as Australia and the United States which were spared the slaughter, attitudes among people with disabilities changed. It no longer seemed wise to stand up and proudly proclaim your differences. Freak shows began to be disbanded.
It wasn’t until the late 20th century that new freak shows began to take their place. This revival is something that I think we should be proud of. I believe freak shows are an important part of our history. Be proud and let your freak flag fly.
How do you feel about
freak shows? Let us know in the comments section below.