The 101: Freaks & Geeks

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Bill Thomas, A&E Editor

Every issue, A&E Editor Bill Thomas and Assistant A&E Editor Jake Cochran indulge their vanity and give a thoroughly biased crash-course in whatever madness happens to be dwelling in their warped minds. Their views do not reflect those of The Beacon, its staff or Wilkes University. Blah blah blah. This week, Bill Thomas is mingling on the midway with…

“Freaks & Geeks”

Before it was used to describe comic-book fans and guys who dress up like Scotty from Star Trek on the weekends, the word “geek” referred to a bottom-rung sideshow performer who bit the heads off of live chickens. Remember that the next time you throw around phrases like “geek chic” whilst watching reruns of “The Big Bang Theory.”

Like it or not, the art of sideshow (yes, “art”) has left an indelible impression on the cultural consciousness over time. Though it may seem like an archaic relic long since made obsolete, echoes of it can be seen in everything from lowest-common-denominator entertainment like “Jackass” and Howard Stern to huge, glitzy pop-culture institutions like the WWE (pro wrestling was once a staple of carnival sideshows, in point of fact) and the band Kiss.

This weekend, the annual Inkin’ the Valley tattoo convention and Sideshow Gathering will invade the Woodlands Inn in Wilkes-Barre once again. While the tattoo side of the event has become a local institution, for those with an interest in the more esoteric and unusual extremes of fringe Americana, it’s the Sideshow Gathering – the only event of its kind in the world – that holds the most fascination.

A brief history lesson:  Though the roots of many sideshow acts can be traced all the way back to the Renaissance (at least), sideshow as we know it today really took form in the post-Civil War 1800s, when circus pioneer P.T. Barnum took over the American Museum in New York and turned it into a showcase for oddities.

Some of Barnum’s exhibits, like the midgets, albinos, armless men and microcephaly-suffering “pinheads,” were real. Others, like the mummified “Feejee Mermaid” or “Olga, the Headless Girl,” were not. For Barnum, it didn’t matter as long as it turned a profit. For Barnum’s customers, it didn’t matter either. Calling such things “hoaxes” was missing the point. The wall between reality and fantasy became translucent, and those standing on the side of the former, staring into the latter, saw wonders there.

That was all that mattered.

Soon, Barnum took his successful troupe of freaks and performers on the road, dubbed it “The Greatest Show on Earth” and subsequently helped give shape to the modern circus as well as its grittier, more eccentric sibling, the sideshow.

Today, of course, political correctness has taken most of the albinos and midgets off the bally stage and driven the armless men and pinheads toward daytime talk shows instead. The “born freaks” have moved on. Conjoined twins and “lobster boys” can get operations and lead normal lives or start charity foundations and continue the anything-to-make-a-buck sideshow-exploitation huckster tradition there.

In other cases, the abnormal has become normal. Bearded ladies and tattooed men live right next door. Your little brother does more outrageous stunts than most fairground daredevils would ever risk, while hanging out hammered with his high-school pals.

It’s not polite to stop and stare anymore, though deep down the desire remains inside us all. Thanks to that, sideshow endures even as it faces dilution by a culture eager to adopt its traditions but unwilling to admit to doing so.

It’s the “working acts” who rule the roost now, having picked up the slack of their departed “born freak” companions. Sword-swallowers and knife-throwers, flame-eaters and fire-breathers, human blockheads and human pincushions, men who lay on beds of nails and women who walk up ladders with machetes for rungs; no one else does what they do and so there will always be a market for it.

Dressed in edgier modern attire, sideshow has found a new home far from the funnel cake and livestock feces-scented midway of the county fair. It thrives now in heavy-metal and punk-rock music clubs, or in posh subterranean circles where hipsters laud it as avant-garde performance art. The art of the hustle is, as an old freak-show banner might lie, “alive on the inside!”

In the immortal words of Robert Ripley, believe it or not.

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You don’t have to be a carny to be in the know these days. Check out these Secrets of the Sideshow. You may be surprised at how little of what you think you know is actually true…

The Human Blockhead

The closest thing to a “trick” on this list, “The Human Blockhead” is an act wherein the performer “hammers” an object, usually a nail, into his or her nostril. This act is based on the common misconception that the nasal cavity goes up, when in fact it goes straight back. Thus, an illusion of forcibly pushing a nail through bone is created. Despite the seeming simplicity of this act, training and practice are required. In other words, don’t try this at home. That goes for every other trick on this list as well.

The Bed of Nails

Another exploitation of a common misconception, the bed of nails offers less danger and pain than one would imagine. That’s not to say plenty of risk doesn’t still exist, but there’s ultimately more danger in a single nail than an entire bed. No, they’re not “trick” nails. They’re not rubber and they’re not dull. What people don’t realize, though, is that the more nails in a bed, the more evenly the performer’s weight is distributed across each nail, giving no single nail much chance of penetrating skin. An experienced performer who can control his or her balance can come away without a mark. Again, do not try this at home.

Fire Eating

And you thought Thai food was spicy! OK, a sideshow performer doesn’t really “eat” fire. Rather, he or she simply inserts a lit torch into his or her mouth and allow the flame to be snuffed out from lack of oxygen. As always, there is extreme danger here, as the performer must make sure not to breathe in or out while the lit flame is inside, or even just nearby, his or her mouth. Otherwise, the consequences can be disastrous. Fire acts of all kinds are among the most dangerous in all of sideshow. Do not try this at home, seriously.

Fire Breathing

Speaking of dangerous fire acts, this one may seem cut-and-dry: Performer fills mouth with fuels, holds lit torch and spews fuels in a tight jet-stream of mist toward flame, creating a fireball. That doesn’t mean fire breathing is easy or safe, though. When done right, the actual flame never comes closer than roughly 3 or 4 inches to the performer’s lips. When done wrong, injuries range from mild to deadly. Many such accidents occur every year when untrained amateurs decide to try the act without proper preparation. For instance, alcohol and petrochemicals are not, as many assume, the preferred fuels for such performances. You know what’s coming next: Don’t try this at home. st don’t.

Sword Swallowing

Not to be confused with what you’ve been trying to get your girlfriend to try for the past three years, sword swallowing is the real deal. No tricks here; the swords are not rubber, nor are they collapsible. The ability to swallow swords takes years to attain and is achieved only when a performer is able to master conscious control of his or her gag reflex and the normally involuntary esophageal sphincter. Extensive self-discipline, precision and knowledge of human anatomy are all likewise required. Even still, internal wounds are not uncommon and deaths have occurred as a result. Do you even need to be told not to try this at home?

Pickled Punks

Admittedly, this one isn’t an act of any kind, but rather an attraction. Regardless, its iconic status merits a mention in this list. A “pickled punk” is the carny term for a fetus preserved in a jar of formaldehyde, usually human and usually displaying some kind of physical deformity. Some pickled punks are fake, as many would expect. But some are real, too. Only the showman displaying them knows for sure.