When Sideshows Take Center Stage

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With Guest Host Jessica Yellin.

From TV to Broadway, circus sideshows — freak shows — are having a big cultural moment. What’s the history behind the comeback?

A shot from the AMC reality series, "Freakshow." (Jessica Brooks / AMC)
A shot from the AMC reality series, "Freakshow." (Jessica Brooks / AMC)

Sideshows are everywhere. One of the year's hottest TV programs — "American Horror Story" --stars a bearded lady and a two-headed woman.  There’s the popular reality show called "Freakshow."  And on Broadway, new productions feature conjoined twins, the Elephant Man, and circus performers. It seems the sideshow is having a cultural moment. Why now? Is it exploitation or embrace? And what draws us to the bizarre, the shocking and things that make us squirm?  This hour , On Point, there’s something freaky going on.
-- Jessica Yellin


Todd Robbins, magician, performer and sideshow historian. (@toddrobbins)

Jennifer Miller, circus performer, writer and professor of performance. Director and founder of the Circus Amok troupe. (@circusamok)

From The Reading List

The Wall Street Journal: Reviving ‘Side Show’ in the Time of the Freak — "It seems serendipitous for these shows to be opening at the same time. Still, our culture’s fascination with “freaks”—or  simply those outside of what is deemed “mainstream”—has been brewing for awhile. How else to explain the success of shows like 'Glee,' which continuously hammered home its message of geeks and losers wearing their outsider status as badges of honor and succeeding not despite their differences, but rather because of them? Five movies in, the 'X-Men' franchise, another series that revolves around the struggles of mutants cast out by society, is going strong. These series and others have taught us not only to sympathize with those on the fringes of society, but in many ways, to recognize that we are all, in some way or another, 'freaks' ourselves."

International Business Times: The Real American Horror Story: How Jim Rose Brought the Freak Show Back to Life — "That the freak show has survived the cultural explosion of the late 20th century, which atomised so many of its contemporary attractions, is down to one man. A man who took it out of the turbid creepiness of the circus sideshows and became an international celebrity who counts Bono and David Bowie as friends. And a man who certainly does not believe in hiding his light under a bushel."

AV ClubAmerican Horror Story: Freak Show versus American history -- "It’s hardwired in our DNA, since evolution depends on both our attraction to and repulsion from deformed bodies, which reminds us of our own fragile health and the potential of our offspring. The display of human and animal curiosities has always existed, but the freak show format we see in the movies and on TV grew out of the Victorian era in Europe and the United States. The post-industrial rise of a middle class that had both disposable income and leisure time meant more opportunities for entrepreneurial showmen. The result was a boom in new ways to attract paying customers, including the birth of dime museums, vaudeville shows, amusement parks, and other inexpensive pastimes."

This program aired on November 20, 2014.


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