The pretty brunette in the back of the Shim Sham Club looks like your average Decatur Street pub crawler, her ample curves packed into a lacy black vintage slip, her matching eyeliner feathering skyward in two perfect wings. Soft-spoken, friendly and intense, she gives me a big smile, shakes my hand enthusiastically and promises to catch up at the merchandise table after the show.
Less than half an hour later, she calmly takes center stage -- nude but for her underpants and black combat boots -- while the semi-legendary Zamora the Torture King hurls darts at the wide slab of plywood tucked in the waistband of her ruffled cotton panties. One misses the mark, and for the remainder of the act, the dart quivers as the point remains embedded in the plump flesh of her back.
The woman's name is Reina Terror. She is one-third of Girly Freakshow, run by Slymenstra Hymen, late of the theatrically perverse shock-rock band GWAR. Girly Freakshow is one of a slew of alternative performance groups that have been popping up over the past few years that offer variations on the sideshow theme. Tonight at the Shim Sham, the members of the Girly Freakshow (Hymen, Terror, and "token male" Zamora), in varying states of undress, have so far run themselves through with bicycle spokes, eaten fire, hammered nails into their orifices and withstood powerful currents of electricity running through their bodies.
Exotic? Erotic? Shocking, astonishing and obscene? Or a vintage-tinged variation on stupid human tricks? Either way, curious and jaded alike are flocking to see groups such as Hyman's, which has been featured by everyone from Dan Rather to MTV. They also came out to the Shim Sham this spring to watch the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus offer such theatrical perversions as a 6-foot character named Blue Bunny extinguishing a flaming dildo several inches south of his fluffy cotton tail. And they came out to House of Blues to watch the Impotent Sea Snakes, whose cock-rock variation on the freak show at that venue was quite a bit tamer than their audience-participation-rich extravaganza at Jimmy's this past New Year's Eve. At their naughtiest, the Sea Snakes thrive on simulated sex onstage within and outside their entourage. Finally, there was Cirkus Dezad at the A.R.K. offering up more body-mangling delights. (The more shock-oriented local troupe the Know Nothing Family Zirkus Zideshow, featuring body-fluid exchanges and comedy skits, also performed at the A.R.K. in May.)
From the late 19th century through the 1960s, a heyday when dozens of touring sideshows crossed America each summer along with traveling carnivals, audiences paid up to gawk at gruesome and peculiar sights in part to reassure themselves of their own normalcy by the grace of God. Up until as recently as the mid-1980s, the springtime influx of freaks, geeks and red-hot dancing ladies was the rule, as all the big-time traveling shows would begin their first dates of the season.
Specifically September 1986, which is when, according to Girl Show, A.W. Stencell's treatise on American carnival "back-end" sideshows, the very last tented girlie sideshow was performed at the James E. Strates midway in Syracuse, N.Y. The term "back-end" referred to the back lot off of the midway, where the displays of human oddities, acts of daring and dancing girls were stationed in tents. For less than a dollar, Joe Smalltown could be treated, on an average night, to a display of fetuses pickled in Mason jars ("The Horrors of Science"), a midget, fat man, Pig Faced Boy, Lobster Man or Penguin Girl ("Freaks of Nature and Human Oddities"), a sword swallower or high diver ("Acts of Daring"), and for an extra few bucks, a striptease dancer, a cooch show or a "half-and-half" ("Is It a He or Is It a She?") in the girlie-show tent. When shaken carnival goers exited the tent, they were often admonished with a banner, reading loftily: "What God Himself Hath Wrought, No Mortal Man Shall Judge."
With the slow decline of the touring carnival industry, most career freaks both "natural-born" oddities and those who made their living displaying their bizarre talents went into retirement. Advancements in prenatal medical technology probably contributed to the decreasing numbers of physical abnormalities like Grady Styles, the famous Lobster Man, or the hair-covered Priscilla the Monkey Girl. Without the carnival sideshows to support them, otherwise "normal" people who had made their living displaying bizarre talents gradually sought work elsewhere, and stopped passing on their skills to younger generations. One such freak-by-profession was the late Daniel Mannix, who authored several books on the history and philosophy of freakdom, including Freaks: We Who Are Not As Others (Pocket Books, 1976), re-released by RE/Search Books in 1999.
Mannix, a career sword-swallower, tried to explain the freaks to the freaked out, as it were. "If you regard yourself as a normal, healthy-minded person, almost certainly the idea of a freak is repugnant to you," he writes. "But it is fortunate that our ancestors did not take this modern, civilized attitude, for freaks have changed the course of history and greatly contributed to our knowledge of humanity." Mannix argues that the sideshows offered a livelihood as well as a crucial sense of self-esteem to those who would otherwise be consigned to asylums or worse. In the sideshow, the unfortunates -- "we who are not as others" -- could live as others, marrying, supporting families and enjoying contact with people with common interests.
By contrast, today's freaks are physically normal humans who attain freak status by virtue of their actions and not their physical nature. Even "physical" freaks like former French Quarter residents Katzen and her husband, the Enigma (who sport full-body tattoos transforming them, respectively, into a striped tiger and a giant blue jigsaw puzzle) have chosen to modify themselves as such. Performers like Reina Terror and Zamora elect to catch darts in their backs, eat bugs or serve as a conduit for hundreds of volts of electricity onstage because they want to. The deformity, then, may be more psychological or cultural than physical.
The connection between the modern performance-art freak show and their less-ironic forefathers may lie in the outlaw nature they share. Carnival folks got away with more because of their transience -- from the rampant grift that occurred on the lots to the risque "girl shows" that went way further than established burlesque theaters could ever go in terms of nudity and other X-rated activities. Although the modern freak shows perform mostly at indoor club venues (and many alternative performance spaces), they exist essentially on the fringes of the world of theater. Like the Brooklyn-based Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, which travels with an "Autonomadic Bookmobile" of zines and self-published literature, many have ties to the D.I.Y punk scene and relish their guerilla approach. In an interview with Yale Drama Review, Bindlestiff fire-eaters Stephanie Monseu and Keith Nelson drew connections between circuses in general and the anarchist lifestyle.
"The clown's outsider position allows an objective look at the follies and foibles of those who allow themselves to be governed by society," Nelson told the Review. "The clown governs itself. I think many Bindlestiff themes reflect this self-determination. The show is a two-hour visit to a state of suspended laws, a state of individual freedom where the hard evidence of the pursuit of dreams and personal liberty are the acts and the images they present."
The 21st century freak show-as-performance art probably started with New York performer Jim Rose's Circus Sideshow, which included Katzen and Enigma, Zamora the Torture King, and Mr. Lifto (who lifts huge amounts of weight with strategically placed body piercings), in 1990. In 1992, Perry Farrell of the band Jane's Addiction contracted Rose to create a sideshow for the Lollapalooza tour, to appeal to the new alternative "modern primitive" fashion trend of heavy tribal-style tattooing and multiple piercings. Buoyed by Lollapalooza's popularity and the new hip physical culture of body modification, modern freak shows gained an audience.
The argument for the "modern primitives" trend that spawned the initial rise of modern-day freak shows is a standard one. In increasingly technological, cerebral times, tattooing and piercing brings us back to our bodies. Other retro fads, like swing dancing and burlesque performance, have been seen as a reaction to a sterile and unglamorous modern cultural climate. Maybe the popularity of these freakish performances and gruesome acts speaks to a need to reconnect with a past where the physical was not so controllable. Perhaps audiences crave a spectacle on a more visceral level.
"We're all freaks now. We're posthuman," says Crystal Kile, educational director of the Newcomb Center for Research on Women. She has also completed course work for a Ph.D. in American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University, the only accredited university to offer graduate degrees in the study of American popular culture. "We're interfaced with all sorts of machines. So part of the appeal of highly individualized freakish display -- personal adornment, post-industrial tribal marks, etc. -- is that it anchors us in flesh while amplifying and situating us vis-a-vis electronic culture.
"The Internet has encouraged a raising of freak consciousness -- all freaks want community and have arts and entertainment needs," Kile continues. "And there are arty freaks who enjoy the mannered revivalist performance of the freak show."
Bindlestiff's Nelson sees the phenomenon as a return to the more visceral sensations of the past. "I think people want to see flesh and spit again," he told the Review. On the grand level, the shows seem to be onto a trend -- freakishly spectacular acts like Marilyn Manson and the Insane Clown Posse bring in top dollar. On a smaller level, acts like the Impotent Sea Snakes are certainly bringing back the eroticized rocker recast through punk and glam gender-bending and envelope pushing. The weird and perverse carryings-on of the Bindlestiff Cirkus and Girly Freak Show certainly inspire more childish, gleeful grimacing than adult cool. One Cirkus performer even eats bugs onstage. It would be hard to get less cool than that.
It was easy to draw the welcome distinction between oneself and "What God Hath Wrought." Looking around at the audience at the Shim Sham or House of Blues before a Bindlestiff or Sea Snakes performance, it's hard to pick out the performers from the audience. The diminutive Reina Terror, with her Bettie Page bangs and vintage Goth look, was for all practical purposes indistinguishable from the crowd of funky downtowners, rife with facial piercings, tattoos, Technicolor-dyed hair and shiny vinyl pants who had paid up to see her freakish behavior.
At today's freak show, the audience comes to celebrate the freak within and applaud the freak in others: the performance is almost the extreme extension of a community of self-identified freaks. Audience members at the Shim Sham, before the Girly Freak Show performance, use many adjectives to describe the performers they're waiting to see, but not a one makes any distinction between them and himself. One couple visiting from Orlando comments, "It's a fun show, and they're such nice people. They're very courteous."
Kile sees the paradoxical normalcy of today's freaks as part of their audience appeal: "It's the proud and loud self-identified freaks who are attracted to freak show revivalism. Instead of, 'Hey, let's go check out the freaks and be freaked out,' it's 'Hey, freak, let's go check out the other freaks.'"
- Shannon Brinkman
- Bindlestiff co-leader Keith Nelson says the group's show is 'a two-hour visit to a state of suspended laws.'
- Shannon Brinkman
- Bindlestiff co-leaders Keith Nelson and Stephanie Monseu eat fire at a springtime performance at the Shim Sham Club.