Freak Shows became popular during the mid-16th century. The point of the show, in the beginning, was to show off people with physical deformities. During a time when modern medicine wasn’t developed and the internet wasn’t available to people, seeing physical deformities was a shocking image. Nowadays, you can Google search pretty much anything and there is a chance that someone in the world exists with whatever deformity you can imagine. And if not, Photoshop has had the ability to desensitize our brains into believing whatever we see and losing our shock at even the most startling of images.
Freak shows were popular because they made anyone who was different an interest. Most of the time it involved people born with extra limbs, physical deformities, and both sex organs. But as they became more popular, pretty much anything even a little taboo became available and interesting to audiences willing to pay big bucks to get scared, intrigued, or even just be able to say they laid their eyes on a “freak.” Freak shows still exist today, just in a different way. There aren’t traveling freak shows like there used to be, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t still interested in taking a peek into the world of people who are different than them. Just look at how reality TV has taken over the way we live.
We’ve all seen pictures from freak shows before, but there were a lot of different aspects of these side shows that not a lot of people talk about. Here are 15 vintage freak show photos that will haunt your dreams.
15. A Real Mermaid
Mermaids have been a mystery to our species throughout history. A lot of people used to truly believe they were real, but the more and more we learn about a world, the less likely we are to believe in such a mythical creature. But that doesn’t mean a picture like this is any less terrifying! Even in our modern times of being able to Google anything with a click of a button, there are still plenty of people who would believe that this is a real image of a dead mermaid. But as most of us can realize, this is indeed a faked creature. A lot of times, people would take the body of a fish and the head of a monkey and either sew or glue the parts together in order to make this faked mermaid image. Even though we know it’s not a actually mermaid, it’s still terrifying to think of someone willing to do something so gruesome in order to make money.
14. Living Frog Princess
The best way to get people to come look at your exhibit is to have an interesting and intriguing sign to attract and amaze viewers. Sometimes, the actual exhibit was never really as cool as what the sign looked like, so there was no way you would get people to pay to look at the exhibit without a mesmerizing sign first. So you can imagine that the “frog woman” like the one in this picture was indeed, not a frog. It was likely that she just had some form of deformity in her leg, and they would dress her up in a fancy outfit with green makeup to make the deformities look even more heightened. The scariest part of the picture, however, is that it has the tag “alive” on the sign! We’re pretty frightened to think about what that sign might look like if the sign did not say “alive!”
13. Headless Living Woman
“The Headless Woman” became a popular optical illusion that many people would use as attractions for freak shows. The idea was that a woman was decapitated at some point and that she was only surviving by using a system of wires and tubes connected to the stump on her head to keep her alive. Obviously, the entire thing is completely fake and a system of optical illusions and special effects is used to pull off this trick. The idea can be easily figured out, as it’s a system of mirrors and a girl hiding her head in order to make it seem as though it’s not there. Even though we know that this is obviously fake and physically impossible, it’s still nonetheless a pretty scary image to see in the first place. The idea of a living body with a spider-like head hooked up to a machine is terrifying in itself.
12. Performers Got Creative With Costumes
You didn’t always have to have a physical deformity to become part of the freak show. A lot of people began to join the shows as performers. During Victorian times and the rise of fundamental Christian views in society, a lot of people found it more and more difficult to stray from the public’s view of the norm. Freak shows became, then, a space for people who were a little different than the rest of society to find a safe space to express themselves and their talents. That is why you might see a lot of dancers, singers, and burlesque performers joined in with other freak show members, like this woman above. Her show must have involved some sort of horse-like performance, as you can see in the costume. But we can’t help but feel a little creeped out by the design of the costume. Everything from her hooves to the head and even the fact that it is a vintage photograph is truly frightening.
11. Evil Clowns Loved Freak Shows
It comes as no surprise that clowns found a big space in the freak show community. To be a clown, you had to have a special talent in order to put on a good performance and dazzle audiences. You also had to be willing to wear extravagant costumes and makeup, and use props in order to look like a “freak.” But we have to look at this picture and truly ask ourselves who in their right mind would be interested in seeing a clown like this? It doesn’t seem funny or exciting like some clowns; rather it’s just downright terrifying. If you’ve ever seen a clown’s performance, you know that they use props as a big part of their show. So we have to wonder what the clown’s knife might be used for? Aside from having their own performances, clowns would also help other members of the freak show put on their own performances as well.
10. Performing Twins
If you had something that set you apart from the rest of society as a whole, there was a good chance that you’d be able to find comfort in the freak show community. This didn’t always mean having a physical deformity. For some people, it was simple enough to just have a twin! And if you didn’t have a twin, you could always at least fake your way through it and dress just like someone else, like these performers above. It might have been exciting to see people who look so similar in Victorian times, but when we look at this picture, we can’t help but feel a little frightened. There is just something very unsettling about the way they’re dressed, the makeup they’re wearing, and their glares at the camera.
9. The Camel Girl
Ella Harper was a girl also known for her involvement in freak shows as “Camel Girl.” She was born with a very rare condition that made her legs bend the opposite way. She had the ability to walk on her two legs normally, but she actually preferred to use all four limbs for mobility. She lived a very comfortable life, making a pretty penny throughout her performances. A lot of people that we’ll see on the list didn’t have deformities that were that crazy or outlandish, but Ella’s condition was incredibly rare, allowing her to have a huge pull for shows that people were willing to pay for. Luckily, she was treated well and always participated willingly in these freak shows. Even though it was a condition that she couldn’t really help, you have to admit, her condition is a little frightening. If you didn’t know the situation and she walked into the room, you would probably be pretty startled.
8. Ventriloquists Were Creepy
Dolls have been around for a much longer time than freak shows have been. Then, one day, someone decided it would be a good idea to make the dolls start talking. That is how ventriloquism started- a startling talent that can terrify people of all sorts. Ventriloquism is an act that often stands alone and performers have independent shows. But there were also a lot of ventriloquists who would participate in freak shows. They were a nice attraction that could be funny or scary to fill in between other startling attractions. Some of the dummies would even have their own disabilities or deformities that would help them better fit into the freak show! But you have to admit, dummies like these are pretty terrifying. There’s something about the picture that gives us an eerie, unsettled sort of feel when you look into either the puppet’s eyes or those of the ventriloquist himself.
7. The Human Pincushion
In our modern times, seeing people with a lot of pins and piercings is never that crazy. Almost everyone seems to have had at least some piercing at one point in their life. But in earlier and more conservative times, seeing a sight like this was startling. It’s still stomach-turning for many, but knowing what we see with people today, it’s not as surprising to us as it may have been for people in earlier times. But people like this still exist and body piercing goes beyond just reasons of fashion. People get a thrill out of poking and prodding their bodies and testing the limits of their skin’s ability to not rip or perish when constantly being penetrated by sharp objects. There’s not that much difference between this guy and a normal pierced person other than a high tolerance for pain and a willingness to risk bleeding out.
6. Albino Man
Albinism is a beautiful condition that results from the lack of pigment in skin and hair that causes people to have white skin, hair and eyes. When you see an albino person nowadays, it seems like a normal occurrence and is even celebrated in the modeling industry. But in an earlier time, it was much more startling to see someone different than how most of us look. And this man takes it to the next level. Being albino isn’t a deformity that hinders you as much as some of the other disabilities on the list, and is something you could probably have the ability to hide if it was something that really bothered or embarrassed you. But instead, this man decided to embrace his differences and even take them to the next level by having a wild haircut and an extravagant outfit. And as we see, the results can be pretty startling.
5. Headless Chicken
You’ve probably heard about how, if you chop off the head of a chicken, it has the ability to walk around for a while afterwards. But this chicken took it to the next level! After losing its head, this chicken had the ability to run around for 18 entire months! After losing his head and having a quick future of becoming someone’s dinner, the farmer decided to keep the chicken alive after realizing he was still able to walk around. The chicken ended up healing and living for over a year! He became a popular attraction that was featured at many freak shows. It’s pretty disturbing, but shows just how amazing animals are. There’s really nothing more terrifying than seeing a headless animal run after you, however, especially when the head is still around as well! This was one of the most well-known cases of this happening, however.
4. Elastic Man
This man suffered from a rare disease that involved a deformity in the amount of collagen in his skin that resulted in the elasticity. This was a common occurrence at a freak show and is still a disease that people have today. The man is seemingly a normal person, but when he pulls his skin away from his body, there’s a much different story. Seeing body horror like this can be incredibly startling, even in our modern society. We normally see things like this in horror movies, and the results that follow involve people peeling their skin back to reveal what’s underneath. Obviously, this disease is a safe thing that people with it have the ability to do, but it still doesn’t necessarily sit right or feel normal when we see this. This is definitely a terrifying image no matter what time period it is.
3. Fortune Teller
Gypsies and fortune tellers were another attraction at freak shows. Everyone loved partaking in the mystical nature of a culture they had appropriated and didn’t understand. Oftentimes, fortune tellers were more part of the side-show; a smaller attraction that didn’t have as many crazy attractions as the actual main freak show. These fortune tellers used Tarot cards, magic balls, and other illusions to trick people into believing they should have their fortune told. But aside from having real fortune tellers at the freak shows, sometimes they would just have fortune telling machines like the one above. If you’ve ever seen Big with Tom Hanks, you probably know already that these things can be dangerous. But aside from potentially having the ability to make your wishes and dreams come true, you have to admit, this box is a bit creepy. It looks as though it would be a spooky Halloween decoration.
2. Dressed Up Monkeys
Animals were often part of the process as well. As we’ve already seen in the previous entry, many people would sew together parts of decapitated animals in order to create new and terrifying monsters. Crowds loved coming to the freak shows to not only see the strange human Frankenstein monsters, but also to peek at live animals as well. They would dress up monkeys like these and pass them off as some sort of advanced species. Whatever you could imagine involving the exploitation of innocent animals, someone probably thought of a way to do it. Circus animals are known for being forced to do wild, unnatural performances. But freak show animals were exploited in more different and even creepier ways. Even though these two monkeys do not look as though they are being too harmed at the moment, they truly do look rather terrifying.
1. People’s Deformities Were Made Fun Of
One of the scariest parts about the whole show is that those in charge were so willing to take advantage of people with physical and mental disabilities. These people often lived comfortable lives, as being part of a freak show led to having a big payout for some of the participants. But at what cost did it come? There is a large percentage of people in the world that suffers from these deformities or disabilities, and instead of educating people about the real issues that might revolve around this, they were laughing and pointing at the people being exploited. Similar things happen today with reality television. Although you may say these people are willing participants, not everyone is aware of what the outcome and results might be. At the same time, many would argue that people in freak shows found homes and families within these communities, and the outcome was better than leading a normal life out of the limelight. What do you think? Were freak shows exploitative and harmful, or would you like to visit one today if you could?