Freak Night: The Sideshow in Cinema


by Amy M. Vaughn

31 October 2020

What can we say here at the end of this series of reviews about the sideshow in horror cinema? Well, we know that movies have had a long and complicated relationship with people who have unusual bodies, but that’s nothing new. And, while uniquely shaped people were a central aspect of our investigation, the other part, the sideshow part, complicates our subject matter, adding not least the idea of a staged performance within a film, a play within a play.

But if those were the only criteria, why not include films like The Elephant Man (1980) or The Dark Backward (1991)? If we were only concerned with performances of the uniquely bodied, we could have. But those films were about John Merrick and Marty Malt, whereas the sideshow is always a group and usually one portrayed as a family.

Maybe that’s the key—the sideshow is a family of Others, a group with their own laws and culture, and their own requirements for membership; and one of those requirements is to have been shunned by the world at large. Is this why the sideshow is such fertile ground for horror? It’s shorthand for different and weird and transient and unpredictable, which are the very things that make it attractive to people who don’t fit in with the mainstream and frightening to those who do.

For nearly a century, moviemakers have used the shorthand of the sideshow and the shock of unusual bodies, more often than not, to teach the audience (if they’re listening) to be more compassionate and less judgmental—or else! Freaks, House of the Damned, The Freakmaker, and Freakshow—the movies in this series most focused on life in the sideshow—all encourage an empathic understanding of the Other, who really isn’t an Other at all.

There haven’t been many movies about sideshows made in the 21st century. And because of state laws against displaying anomalous bodies for profit, today’s in-person sideshows are, for the most part, made up of working acts: fire eaters, human pincushions, that kind of neat stuff. While people are fighting to change those laws, to give the differently bodied the choice to go on the road again if they want to, in the meantime, television has stepped in as a venue for presenting unusual bodies. Not only are there series like Carnivàle and American Horror Story: Freak Show but there are docudramas about little people and very fat people; shows about strong men and women; and gut-wrenching mini-series on the separation of conjoined twins.

Some of the cast of American Horror Story: Freak Show

There are three things that, to my mind, make these nonfiction accounts more heartrending and perhaps exploitative than seeing an unusually bodied person in a sideshow. One is that their issues have been medicalized and labeled as problems where they used to be celebrated. Another is that these people are not performers taking joy in what they do.  And thirdly, very often they seem (or are edited to seem) desperately lonely, which we are meant to interpret as the terrible price of their disorder or deformity, but which could as easily be seen as a lack of the type of supportive group and extended family a sideshow could provide.  

Maybe some of us romanticize what was for many a necessary evil. And certainly, we should be glad that anti-discrimination laws are in place to protect the uniquely bodied from fates suffered in the past. But there’s still a long way to go before the stereotypes that lead to rash judgments and unfair treatment are completely broken down and replaced with equality and acceptance. And while they might not have much sway, the vast majority of horror movies set in the sideshow have tried their best to make things at least a little better for those who lived there.

Amy M. Vaughn is the author of Skull Nuggets and the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space. She is also a contributing editor at Babou 691. Her newest novella, Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel, from Thicke & Vaney Books, can be ordered from Amazon.

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