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Generally Recognized As True: Reinventing the carnival freak show

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Reinventing the carnival freak show

One of the appealing things about the old-fashioned carnival was the mystery and promise that accumulated in advance of the carnival's arrival. Promoters were sent ahead of the travelling carnival, and parades through town gave a hint of what would be seen if you went. But, even when you've seen the preview and when you arrive, the dissolution of mystery is further suspended because everything is tucked away behind inscrutable, colourful canvas tents and the muffled sounds from within them blend with the relatively quiet atmosphere to create a place that's both peaceful and exciting at the same time.

At the time, there were lots of exotic animals and freaks of nature attached to these shows because this was a very affordable way for average people of the time to experience things from such far-flung places. Most people were not jet-setting around the world on planes multiple times a year to go to foreign places, and particularly not during the Depression, when the carnival had a even more special meaning.

When I went to Carnivale Lune Bleue last year, it was obviously a shoe-horning in of something from a different time and place into the present, and you had to use a lot of imagination to try and make it fit. We don't have as much need for what the carnival offers as we used to.

Beyond that, though, I wonder about the sideshows. Carnivals used to taunt you with the promise of seeing real freaks of nature -- the two headed kid; the bearded lady; the turtle boy. But I almost think that kids wouldn't be impressed by that these days. The contemporary world of a child is a world of fantasy, after all -- very sheltered and with little left to chance. I'm sure many kids are shuttled from colourful plastic playset to colourful plastic playset as the adults enrich their lives with events while the kids stay in the area furnished by the event facilitator that's "great for the kids".

But everything fantastic that they could possibly see has probably been seen on TV. Would freaks impress them? Probably not, and that's why I think we need to reinvent the "freak show".

In my mind, a modern freak show would involve freaks of nature such as the following -- never before comprehended by a modern child:
  • The man who makes bread from grass: step right up and see the man take seeds of wheat, grind them up, and make loaves of bread with the powder!
  • The egg-laying chicken: come one, come all! See the chicken lay an egg and watch as our death-defying stage manager makes an omelette with it... and eats it!
  • The man who drank milk from a cow: watch in amazement as the odd little man milks the udder of a cow, drinks the milk, and lives to see another show!

I think -- no, I feel -- that these would be much more appropriate and effective freak shows for the children of modern times.

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