At the intersection of circus culture, rock culture, biker culture, and intellectual culture, a current flows–distinctly American in its independent spirit–just outside the mainstream. It is rooted in the gypsy-like traditions of social drifters and outcasts, with their penchants for exaggeration, drama, and garishness, often with a dark bent. It is a mindset cultivated on the fringes of polite society. A style that harkens back to the days of the traveling freak show, in which a barker peddled to passersby some fantastical grotesquery just inside a tent, has managed to manifest in a variety of creative ways, from amusement park rides to tatted-up rockers to modern-day hipsters. The accoutrements of the marginalized have surfaced on Main Street.
Attached to this broad-yet-identifiable style are a tough-minded pragmatism and a generous autonomy, and a willingness to embrace differences–even flaunt them–rather than tamp them down. An assertive stubbornness shows in this countercultural questioning of much-accepted standards, seeing if what those standards are based in is anything more than just widely adopted prejudice. One may find traces of this influence in places like the French Quarter, or at roller derby bouts and horror festivals, and lest it be thought that dark is synonymous with evil, let it be remembered that evil often wears a guise of moral uprightness–the guise of which is rooted in middle-class Victorian manners, which ironically is the exact time period when we begin to see the emergence of the traveling sideshow.
An early glimpse of this freak show aesthetic came to me in the late 1980’s in the form of a thrill ride at the now defunct Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Panama City Beach, Florida. The rides at this park could have been culled from any carnival—a tilt-a-whirl, a scrambler, something called a trabant—but they were given nuance by their housing within structures unique to their location. The particular ride in mind was cheekily named Dante’s Inferno (not the only amusement ride with that name–see Coney Island), and it consisted of a black dome with a giant devil’s head attached whose gaping, fanged mouth served as the entrance. The ride waiting inside could have been anything; the real fun was assured by the ride’s outer shell and the anticipation arising from waiting in a line that entered a wide, demonic grin and disappeared into a scream-filled darkness. Yet the demonic visage was unthreatening. Darkly playful is a fitting description. No one standing beside those massive molars possibly could have felt they were in any real danger, and therein lies the key to the sideshow sensibility. This is just the type of cheap thrill offered by the traditional traveling freak show, where much of the excitement is generated before one ever enters the tent.
The freak show remains an actual thing, perhaps most famously at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. The major difference in the modern version of this historically notorious event is that the culture of it seems to be as much a part of the presentation as the performers themselves. It is difficult to imagine the freak show without its particular trappings, such as the posters that illustrate the talents of the featured “freaks”. These posters tend to present flat, almost cartoon-like figures with exaggerated and sometimes monstrous features. The settings are depicted in lurid colors (lots of rich reds, ghastly greens, and pallid yellows, all with black outlines), and the descriptive text is rendered with elaborate, out-of-date fonts. The focus has shifted from human deformities (like a third foot) to extreme feats and radical appearances, such as a sword-swallowing woman covered in tattoos. Without this shift, it is questionable whether a freak show aesthetic could survive in our politically correct era. Prolific chronicler of off-Broadway productions, Simi Horwitz, offers up an additional explanation for the sideshow’s enduring presence: “The sideshow is pure Americana, a performing arts offshoot that has not yet been gussied up.” It belongs to the world of folklore and myth, a realm once-removed from the subconscious. It is a genre largely forgotten by time, written off by the tastemakers of contemporary society. Their outsider status has enabled them to fly beneath the conventional radar for so long that a tremendous freedom of expression and identity has been allowed to thrive.
This is where we begin to see parallels between the sideshow and a host of other subcultures. There are the tattoos so prevalent among bikers and rockers; the daredevil tactics of skateboarders and freestyle bicycle riders; the theatricality of actors and actresses; the racy routines of burlesque dancers; the physicality of roller derby girls; the graphic style of comic book artists; and even the bohemian pose and scruffy dandyism of hipsters. All of these groups are marked by tight-knit inclusion–either you get it, or you don’t. The majority of these groups eschew middle-class mores, regardless of upbringing, viewing such concerns as either disingenuous or as part of an establishment that does not have their interest in mind. Likewise, these groups provide outlets for those who must find their identities outside the mainstream. If current trends are any indication, this includes a significant part of the population. The sideshow is alive and well.
Horwitz, Simi. “Sideshow Performers Define Themselves in the Modern World.” Backstage.com. 24 Aug. 2011. Web. 24 Aug 2011.