American Horror Story’s latest series, Freak Show, got off to a rip-roaring start on Fox TV (FX network in the US), invoking the 1930s screen memory of Todd Browning’s Freaks (banned for years) and adding more contemporary (and very adult) elements of modern horror. Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates lead an excellent cast and combined with high production values, the show delivers some gruesome thrills. Twisty the Clown will have you reaching for the tranquilizers or a stiff drink. Freak Show is set in 1952 in Florida and the first episode combined campiness, suspense, and even some pathos. I’m hoping that future scripts deliver on character development and the terrible challenges of being “different” in a conformist judgemental world, far worse in fifties America than today. But empathy might be a challenge for the writers given that a few major characters are already portrayed as murderers (and that’s just the first episode).
Watching the show reminded me of my own childhood experience of seeing one of the last American travelling sideshows back in 1968. Long before the political correctness movement had entered society, carnival freak shows had been a summer rite of American life across the country. I had been shopping at the local department store with my mother and was in the checkout lines when I saw a man with two faces. He wasn’t wearing a mask and had just popped in to buy some things but the effect on other patrons was disturbing. It was a horrific deformity, an extreme cleft palate that had divided his face. I do remember noticing that his third eye looked painted-on. Mother hustled me out fairly quickly but a few days later I ended up seeing him again when we went to the sideshow one evening.
These are hazy memories so long ago but I remember the gasps of the punters as the two-faced man pulled off his burlap mask. The “talker” for the show also performed: he was the Human Blockhead who nailed spikes through his nose and then pulled them out, swallowed swords and fire, and who could suck in his guts so you could practically see his backbone. Amazing and somewhat terrifying for a ten-year old and I’m still at a loss how I was allowed in. Other “exhibits” included a woman suffering from elephantiasis, a bearded lady, and well, the rest have taken root in some forgotten corner of my memory.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I’ve now identified some of those I saw. They were part of the James E Straits sideshow which travelled the US for decades and had come to Rhode Island that summer in 1968. The “Man with Two Faces” was a gentleman named Bill Durks who worked the carny circuit from his early forties until he died (even finding love and marriage there). The Human Blockhead was Melvin Burkhart who died at the age of 94 in 2001, performing right up until a few weeks before he passed away. Reading about their lives now, all these years on, one is impressed with their humanity and the obstacles they overcame. Freak shows still exist in the US, but are no longer the same as they were in the 20th century. The ethics of such entertainment are debatable and we live in a different age now. And thankfully, many of the debilitating conditions that led to sideshow freaks are medically treatable. But I’m glad a little online research transformed these people into individual human beings from the “monsters and freaks” of my childhood.