(Author of fantastic horror novels like Tale of the Vampire Bride, The First Days, and Pretty When She Dies, Rhiannon Frater is a talented and accomplished author who needs no introduction! However, I've just given her one. Her post concerns freak shows, because there's a dark side to every carnival...)
The Freak Show
Come in! Come in! Step into the darkest depths of human sorrow and depravity. Experience the terror of Mother Nature’s wrath! See the terrible creatures of your most horrific nightmares!
Be warned! If you are of a fragile heart and mind, do not enter into this tent of woe and misery, for what you see inside will surely darken your soul and linger in your dreams for years to come!
If you are brave of heart, sturdy of soul, and strong in constitution, enter! Enter!
Enter the FREAK SHOW!
Ah, the freak show! It was a staple of the carnival experience for hundreds of years. The old freak show was a strange and sad combination of people and animals with birth disorders. People were fascinated by the bearded ladies, fat man, tall man, limbless people, small people, etc. Sometimes they would be passed off as mythological creatures or monsters.
Even after death some of the “freaks” would remain on display, their bodies preserved for future generations to gawk at. This is the unfortunate case with two very famous people who were exhibited for their unusual physicality. Joseph Merrick (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Merrick) and Sarah Baartman (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Baartman) are famous cases of people who were forced to exhibit themselves to make a living.
The freak show remained a stable of carnivals and circuses even into the beginning of the last century. One of most controversial films of the 1930’s was Tod Browning’s Freaks. It showcased real circus freaks and was so upsetting to the general population it was heavily edited before release. Many of the genetic defects showcased in the film have been eliminated by modern medicine, but Tod Browning was a former circus entertainer and treated the freaks with dignity. In fact, they come across throughout the film as more humane than the able-bodied people in the circus.
Even today newspapers widely report on two-headed snakes, children born with multiple arms, people with unusual disorders, and sadly, even the pitfalls of the morbidly obese.
The unknown terrifies all of us. It’s a part of our genetic evolution to fear the things in the dark, to fear what we don’t understand, to fear what is alien and not of the norm. It’s how we protected ourselves from dangers in the past. We used to explain away our fears with fairy tales and mythology.
Later, as science began to explain the unknown, our attention was captured by the people and animals that created freak shows. It was a safe way to be afraid, to satisfy the fight or flight encoding in our genetics. Dire warnings were often issued before the unveiling of some of the more deformed people. Joseph Merrick, the famous Elephant Man, horrified and enthralled audiences with his appearance. People were known to faint or run screaming from his exhibit.
People have always been fascinated by nature’s oddities. But why are we so fascinated by the freak show?
I suspect for the same reason we are drawn to horror films and novels, we can’t resist shows about hoarders, or overly-tanned people from New Jersey. We’re relieved that it’s not us in those scenarios. We are safe and sound in our own worlds. We feel safe in the concept of “us” and “them.”
One of the most famous lines from Freaks is “One of us! One of us!” It comes during a wedding reception. A gold-digging diva of the circus marries one of the small people because she discovers he’s wealthy. The freaks celebrate the wedding and begin to chant, welcoming the woman into their midst and declaring her “one of us.” She becomes outraged at the chant.
As a horror writer, I am very aware of the concept of “us” and “them.” One of the challenges of writing an effective character in PRETTY WHEN SHE DIES: A Vampire Tale was creating a heroine people could sympathize with even though she is seen as a freak even before she rises from the dead. Amaliya has a passionate love for metalheads, sports tattoos, was a drummer in a metal band, has dyed black hair, a penchant for getting into trouble, and a tendency to run away at the slightest bit of trouble. Amaliya has always felt that she doesn’t belong. Even in her own family, she is the outsider, always struggling to gain approval and love. Amaliya spends a good portion of the book being afraid of the unknown, but once she uncovers the truth about her new nature and her new powers, she embraces her new identity. Instead of trying to become one of “them,” she accepts the new world around her and herself. She may still be considered a freak (even among the vampires), but Amaliya is fine with that title. By becoming what she feared, she is empowered and no longer afraid.
The freak shows showcasing human “oddities” are virtually extinct now. New forms of entertainment have taken their place. Even though we now live in a much safer society, we still tend to fear the dark and the unknown. Even though we don’t need to live in fear of the dark, we still have the inherent need to feel the relief of having escaped deformity, injury, or death. Whereas in the past freak shows in the past were a “safe” way to indulge in our fears, today movies, TV shows, and books have taken the place of the freak show.
And thankfully, people who were once considered “freaks” are now one of us.
Rhiannon Frater is the award-winning author of the AS THE WORLD DIES zombie trilogy and the author of several other books: the vampire novels PRETTY WHEN SHE DIES and THE TALE OF THE VAMPIRE BRIDE and the young-adult zombie novel THE LIVING DEAD BOY AND THE ZOMBIE HUNTERS. Her award-winning zombie trilogy AS THE WORLD DIES (THE FIRST DAYS, FIGHTING TO SURVIVE, SIEGE) are available now in bookstores.
Giveaway! Make a comment on Rhiannon's post to enter! (You might tell us your favorite vampire story!) Today's winner will receive a copy of Pretty When She Dies by Rhiannon Frater!
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