American Horror Story: Freak Show debuted last night, heir to a long legacy of stories built around the weird world of sideshows and human oddities. If AHS has whet your appetite for more of the same, step right up and peer behind the curtain for 11 strange and splendid displays of fiction at its freakiest.
Based loosely on Tod Robbins’s 1923 short story “Spurs,” Tod Browning’s 1932 pre-code horror flick stands alone as a subgenre of one. Freaks is notable mostly for its inversion of the traditional evil-freaks-versus-good-guy-normals: In Freaks, the human oddities and sideshow performers are sympathetic and humanized as they face off against a predatory trapeze artist and her strongman boyfriend. The movie was a spectacular flop — it all but destroyed the career of Browning, who had directed Bela Lugosi in Dracula the year prior, and was blamed for at least one miscarriage when it was first released. But after a 1962 revival at Cannes, it’s risen to a high seat in the cult canon, with homages and parodies in pop culture from Clerks to The Simpsons.
The X-Files, "Humbug"
Set in the circus town of Gibonston, Florida, the second-season episode “Humbug” is notable less for its cast of human oddities — including self-styled modern sideshow stars Jim Rose and the Enigma — and more as the first episode solo-written by X-Files behind-the-scenes star Darin Morgan. As a monster-of-the-week entry, Vincent Schiavelli’s parasitic conjoined twin is one of the show's sillier ones, but the episode crystallized Morgan’s trademark dark humor and flare for the self-consciously weird.
Remember the time Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley put out a concept album and graphic novel as a pair of conjoined twin sisters? Because that definitely happened. Evelyn Evelyn is the Series of Unfortunate Events of sideshow drama, pushing tragedy so hard, it comes full circle into the absurd. It’s worth noting that album’s original viral campaign, which presented the twins as artists Palmer and Webley had discovered, fell flat: The kind of tragedy that can play for laughs in fiction takes on a very different timbre when it’s presented in a real-world context. [Disclosure: I worked on the Evelyn Evelyn book as an associate editor and have a current professional relationship with artist Cynthia von Buhler.]
If Freaks is the definitive sideshow movie, Katherine Dunn’s 1989 novel Geek Love holds an equivalent place in the literary canon. A National Book Award finalist, Geek Love is narrated by Oly, one of a family of children whose parents (both self-made oddities) decided to breed their own freak show. Geek Love is hard to wiggle into a single genre category — magical realism comes close, but doesn’t really cover the book’s range or intensity: It’s a difficult, disturbing, and profoundly rewarding read.
Mr. Dark’s Carnival, Something Wicked This Way Comes
While the sideshow of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes lingers on the periphery of the larger story, it has its share of human and not-so-human oddities. And, like all good sideshow fiction, it blurs the line between audience and exhibits as Mr. Dark taps into his marks’ deepest desires, then consumes and regurgitates them as pieces of his traveling show.
Before there was American Horror Story: Freak Show, there was plain old Freakshow: a 2006 animated series created by and starring H. Jon Benjamin and David Cross as conjoined twins leading a freak show that moonlighted as a hapless superhero team. An oddity among oddities, Freakshow aired for a single seven-episode season before fading into obscurity.
Daniel Knauf’s HBO series Carnivàle took sideshows to new heights of Lynchian weirdness, setting its circus amid a complex supernatural mythos and multigenerational battle between good and evil. The supernatural angle changes the contest of Carnivàle’s freaks significantly: In a world as strange as the show’s, the bar for “normal” moves accordingly.
Billy the Kid’s Old-Timey Oddities
Given that Goon cartoonist Eric Powell is a master of the gnarly weird, Billy the Kid’s Old-Timey Oddities, a comics series in which the famous bandit fakes his death and ends up throwing in his lot with a traveling freak show to shoot his way through supernatural mysteries, is weirdly tame. It’s about freak shows as a motif rather than a theme, and once you get past the basic physical strangeness of its cast, it’s missing most of what makes sideshow stories most interesting — the funhouse-mirror commentary on humanity (for that, best stick with The Goon).
Zippy the Pinhead
Bill Griffith’s cult-classic comic strip isn’t actually about sideshows, but it merits inclusion on this list because its main character, the eponymous Zippy, is based on Schlitzie, the microcephalic performer Griffith first saw in a screening of (you guessed it) Tod Browning’s underground classic Freaks. While Zippy has little in common with his real-world twin — Zippy regularly argues philosophy, while Schlitzie was generally cited as having roughly the cognizance of a 3-year-old — the inspiration and resemblance puts Zippy firmly in the tradition of freak shows and their cross-media derivatives.
In fiction, freaks tend to be metaphors, funhouse mirrors for humanity, or parables about the shallowness of superficial beauty. Tim Burton’s 2003 film takes the metaphor a step further. Whether its oddities are genuine or fictions created by larger-than-life liar Ed Bloom remains ambiguous.
Secrets of the Sideshows
The other works on this list are fiction, but if you’re curious about the fact behind the fantasy, Secrets of the Sideshow, by prominent skeptic, performing magician, and former carnival pitchman Joe Nickell, is one of the best and most comprehensive histories in the world of sideshow performers.