Since time immemorial, curiosity drove a man to seek experiences with unnatural phenomena. Freak shows arose from the counterintuitive natural human desire to see the unnatural. Freak shows were a commercial response to this desire.
The shows gave audiences something they craved, and the audiences gladly paid the organizers for putting up the shows. This paper explores the reasons why freak shows are still very attractive to various audiences despite the moral and ethical concerns that surround them.
The Elephant Man
Elephant Man refers to a man born in Britain with severe deformities in 1862 (Durbach 6). His real name was Joseph Merrick. At birth, Merrick was normal. However, after a few years, he started developing several abnormalities (Durbach 6).
His skin became thicker than usual, and he developed a bony lump on his head. His skin also became rough and looked like an elephant’s skin. At age 10, Merrick fell and injured his hip. He developed a permanent deformity because of this injury.
Merrick’s mother died when he was ten years old, and after his father remarried, his parents rejected him. At some point, Merrick contacted a showman known for freak shows in England. This man was Sam Torr. Thor took Merrick into his show business and his managers gave Merrick the stage name, “Merrick, the Elephant Man” (Durbach 7).
Merrick’s show career was more successful than hawking which he had tried for a few years. However, his managers exploited him and abandoned him in Brussels.
He made his way back to England, and with the help of a surgeon named Frederick Treves, Merrick found accommodation in the London Hospital where he died in 1890 (Durbach 8). Merrick’s life was a tragedy from the onset, and society exploited him because of his uniqueness. His story is representative of the lives of people who live with deformities.
Contemporary Freak Shows
Before the advent of the television, freak shows were live shows. The organizers either displayed deformed people in shops devoted to freak shows, or in circuses and traveling theatres. The need for travel arose from the realization that once someone saw a deformed person, his curiosity was satisfied. This means that the market for a particular freak show diminished after the audience viewed the persons on display.
After the advent of television and the internet, freak shows are now part of the items viewers consume from television stations and websites. Important differences exist between freak shows today and those held in the past. First, there are tighter controls on freak shows because they tend to exploit the deformed person. In some countries, freak shows are illegal.
Secondly, modern freak shows tend to highlight deformities in an educative manner, rather than purely for entertainment. This point is debatable because the shock effect is what makes the freak shows attractive. In general, people with deformities today have more legal protection against abuse compared to those who lived in the previous centuries (Bogdan 29).
Reasons for the Popularity of Freak Shows
The main question this paper intends to answer is why freak shows are still popular. The most important reason explaining the popularity of freak shows is the shock factor associated with human deformities (Durbach 14). Curiosity is part of human life. In this regard, many people are willing to pay to view phenomena they have never seen. In a certain way, curiosity explains why the world has a thriving tourism business.
People are willing to travel around the world to get new experiences and to see plants, animals, and physical features that have never seen before. This basic motivation is what drives the appetite for freak shows. In the same vein, shocking stories tend to get the most attention.
Freak shows appeal to human sympathy and can be unnerving. Human deformities evoke very strong emotions when the audience tries to empathize with the deformed persons (Bogdan 44). The deep emotional connection with the deformed person makes the event unforgettable. It is paradoxical that human beings will make an immense effort to see bizarre things, which at the same time can be very repulsive.
The second reason for the popularity of freak shows is the financial returns associated with the shows. Some commentators compare freak shows to pornography. Pornography is generally unwelcome in many societies. In some jurisdictions, it is illegal to access pornographic materials (Kull 34). However, the financial returns from pornographic content reveal that the world has a very huge online porn market.
This raises a paradoxical situation where the moral values of society are against pornography, yet society rewards pornography with economic returns. This illustration shows that something that is revolting or morally questionable can still be in demand. According to the basic laws of economics, goods and services follow demand. In this case, the demand for freak shows, regardless of its moral and ethical implications, drives its popularity.
The third dimension that explains the popularity of freak shows is that the deformed persons are adapting to the social stigma associated with their condition. The biography of Merrick shows that he tried to lead a normal life. He obtained a hawker’s license to facilitate his efforts towards earning a living (Durbach 6). However, his appearance was too grotesque. Potential customers, especially women, were too scared to interact with him.
As a result, Merrick had no source of income. He, therefore, found his way to the show business to enable him to make some money in order to survive. In this sense, Merrick joined the freak show business consciously. It was a way of making himself acceptable as a human being. In addition, the shows gave him an income that made him less dependent on charity.
In this sense, freak shows provide people with deformities with a source of income. Since they cannot find normal jobs, freak shows give them a legitimate way of making money.
They are adapting to social stigma by giving the society something it craves in exchange for monetary return (Pidgeon, Kasperson and Slovic 28). This shows that people with deformities are partly responsible for making freak shows popular because they avail themselves for the shows.
The three main reasons behind the popularity of freak shows are the shock effect they have on audiences, the market demand for shows, and the self-promotion of persons with deformities. The ethical concerns surrounding freak shows are not sufficient to stop freak shows. In this regard, freak shows resemble pornography, which despite being universally unacceptable still commands a significant market share in the entertainment industry.
In the past, freak shows took, place in theatres and in special shops. In modern times, the shows appear on TV, and online. The only way in which freak shows can end is by empowering deformed persons to earn a living in other ways. This calls for more effort towards social integration, education of the masses, and training targeting the deformed persons. This will kill both the supply and the demand for freak shows.
Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Print.
Durbach, Nadja. Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture. Berkeley, CA: Unversity of California, 2009. Print.
Kull, Katrin. The Model of Internet-Based Marketing Communication. Tallinn: Tallinn Technical University, 2003. Print.
Pidgeon, Nick, Roger E Kasperson and Paul Slovic. The Social Amplification of Risk. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.