Step right up, step right up, and feast your eyes on the horrors of the circus midway…
What is it about the circus and its ballyhoo that makes it such a fertile breeding ground for horror?
I have a theory: for the longest time, circuses were where those cast-off from society were able to work for their living. As such, they developed an aura of mystery, and when the masses are uncomfortable, they tend to label the thing that makes them uncomfortable as monstrous.
For a little bit of background: what we think of as the “circus” typically consists of novelty acts: contortionists, sword swallowers, trapeze flyers, gymnasts, animal acts, et cetera. Until recently, though, the novelty act was just one of several types of circus acts. Sideshow scholar Robert Bogdan identifies two others, besides: the “born freak” and the “made freak” were two main features of sideshows that any audience could expect to marvel at. For some perspective, “born freaks” were billed as the Bearded Lady, Siamese Twins, Half Man-Half Woman, or General Tom Thumb to name a few famous examples. “Made freaks” were billed as the Tattooed Lady or The Missing Link.
If it sounds like exploitation, that’s because it is. There are many schools of thought on whether P.T. Barnum was a hero or an opportunist, but his circus, and the circus at large was an (if not the) option for a decent living for those with anomalous bodies until very recently. Remember, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 only happened in NINETEEN NINETY. 1990. That’s not a typo: one, nine, nine, zero.
Before we culturally understood the medical nature of disability, the pseudo-science of race, and the fallacy of gender=sex, “Cabinets of Human Curiosities” or even “Human Zoos” were places where out-of-the-ordinary sights arrested the eyes of the majority. It makes sense that the aura of mystery that circuses intentionally cultivated could merge with that sensation of terror so associated with horror.
Below is a list of some truly horrific books about the circus, from the scholarly to the titillating, everyone will find something to behold within!
Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body
Though always fascinated by the fiction of the sideshow and circus, I have always felt that to be a responsible reader, I needed to know its facts. This anthology of critical texts is heavy reading, to be sure, but it encompasses so much of history, from the idea that anomalous bodies were omens of fortune from God to the medicalized torture that so many people endured. If you want the facts, this book is the perfect place to start.
Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self
Though this nonfiction does not feel like horror, it documents the stories of so many people in the days of the early sideshow. To be sure, the circus was, in fact, a fertile breeding ground for horror in the truest sense: from dwarfs to giants, ugly people to feral children, “hermaphrodites” to “Siamese Twins,” this book chronicles all their stories.
Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit
If the title isn’t horrifying enough, in this book, Bogdan explores the exploitation of people with anomalous bodies in the history of the sideshow. Similar to his mentor above (Fiedler), Robert Bogdan picks up the narrative of curiosities where Fiedler leaves off, giving a voice to the narrative of the more contemporary acts in sideshows of the U.S.A.
Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History
This nonfiction book doesn’t horrify by objectifying its subjects; it horrifies by narrating the “discovery” of the first famous conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker. The conjoined twins were “imported” from Siam in 1829 and into (basically) slavery. It “refuses to reduce the saga to freakshow dime store novel cliches,” and rather tells their story as a true biography.
In book 4 of the Rewind or Die series, best friends Sam and Rochelle learn the urban legend of the massacre at the Cirque Berserk thirty years ago. They go to the abandoned carnival to investigate the alleged demons still haunting it.
No list of circus horror could even exist without this opus. Katherine Dunn’s novel tells the story of the Binewski family who doesn’t just dominate the sideshow—they self-administer arsenic, amphetamines, and radioisotopes to breed their own exhibit of human curiosities. The book tells of the atrocious family dynamics that ensue. If you haven’t read this novel yet, you are behind.
When Nebo’s Carnival of Dread arrives to Holland Nebraska, the locals are ecstatic. At least, most of them are. Mayor Martin Holland and his daughter Linda feel something wrong even before the murders begin, hallucinating ghostly time warps and gory premonitions. Will they catch the killers before they become victims themselves?
Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen
There’s nothing not to love about this book: Dexter Palmer retells the true story of Mary Toft, a novelty fraud of a woman who gave birth to dead rabbits in 1726, from the perspectives of the doctors asked to examine and treat her. It’s a fascinating, horrific read—it can’t be oversold!
The Book of Speculation
Simon Watson is a librarian, but his mother was a circus mermaid. When a mysterious antiquarian circus logbook shows up on his doorstep, he questions the validity of the curse that plagues his family, and that leads him on a carnival circuit of his own.
In this novel, Edward Carey tells (and illustrates!) the life story of the little person orphan, Marie, who begins her apprenticeship to an eccentric wax sculptor, evolves into the sculptor of the aristocratic beheadings during the French Revolution, and eventually solidifies her place in history as the legendary Madame Tussaud.
Lady of the Burlesque Ballet
Maupin is plucked from her street life as a child and fattened up for candy-factory advertising. She becomes a sensation as the Fat Lady in a burlesque show, where she gains and loses hundreds of pounds as a result of her heartbreak and loneliness. This adult fairy tale novella is just the tip of the iceberg that is Timothy Schaffert’s work—both his vaudeville ghost story, The Swan Gondola and his new historical fiction, The Perfume Thief are amazing, as well.
Anaïs Nin at the Grand Guignol
The Grand Guignol was the small, blackbox theatre in Paris known for its horrifically macabre novelty acts, and particularly its Most Murdered Woman of All Time, Paula Maxa. This historical, erotic novel features author Anais Nin who falls under Maxa’s spell—and enters a cat and mouse game in which her soul is at hazard.
I hope you’ve enjoyed marveling at the horrors of the circus world. For more historical information about the circus, check out The Fascinating True Stories Behind 10 Famous ‘Freak Show’ Performers.