Vomit inducing rides, deep-fried everything, sugar and utterly unwinnable games. This is the anatomy of the modern carnival. Now relegated to semi-trailers lined up in parking lots, one can’t help but think that the carnival is missing certain aspects of its former glory, the sideshow being one of the most obvious.
Originally, carnivals were pagan celebrations marking important dates on the calendar such as the winter and summer solstices. Eager to curb the marking of pagan holidays, but well aware of the popularity of carnivals, the medieval Catholic Church imposed strict restrictions on when these celebrations could be held.
The Church mandated that carnivals could only be held between the Epiphany (12 days after Christmas) and Ash Wednesday — the beginning of Lent. In fact, in his essay “A Brief History of the Carnival,” Michael Blanding claims that the roots of the word “carnival” come from some variation of the phrase “take the meat away,” a reference to the abstinence from meat during Lent.
While modern carnivals, which have little if anything to do with religion, evolved in Europe in the 18th century and North America in the 19th century, the tradition of holding celebrations between the Epiphany and Lent still lives on today in events such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.
The advent of the train and the mobility they provided helped turn North American carnivals into traveling shows, moving from town to town throughout the year.
A mainstay of those traveling carnivals was the crudely named the “freak show,” which showcased disabled individuals for the entertainment of the audience.
Freak shows were popular carnival attractions in North America between 1840 and 1940. However, over time people became less willing to make a spectacle out of disabled people. This led some American states to enact legislation banning the exhibition of humans for entertainment purposes, effectively making freak shows illegal.
Recently though, a group of individuals calling themselves the “999 EYES authentic human oddities freak show” have challenged the public’s objection to the showcasing of “freaks,” and celebrate “real genetic diversity by showcasing feats performed by living human oddities.”
Billed as “the last genuine traveling freak show in the United States,” their website, 999eyes.com, makes it explicitly clear that each of the performers feels empowered by taking part in the show.
One former performer, called “Jackie the human 3pod,” is a woman who was born without her right leg and a very short left leg. She said in an interview with Sideshow World that she is “proud to be different,” and that she wants to “share what [she] can do with people and encourage them to be proud of who they are no matter what they look like.”
In addition to the performances given by their troupe of self-described “freaks,” 999 EYES also showcases “human marvels,” or people who are examples of the human body taken to extreme, as guest performers. These include sword swallowers, people with full body tattoos and a man who hammers nails into his skull.
So it would appear that, like the ferris wheel, public opinion about freak shows may be coming full circle. Only this time the public is embracing these people for their diversity, and not merely showing up for a spectacle.