Posted by: ferge22j | December 4, 2014

21st-Century Freak Show

In class on Wednesday, we got into a discussion of Victorian “freakery” after looking at a Lady Clementina Hawarden of one of the Hawarden daughters leaning against a mirror in a circus-like costume. The image evoked contemporary images of conjoined twins who were exhibited as side show attractions, such as Millie-Christine, “The Two-Headed Nightingale,” and the Blazek or “Bohemian” twins.

the Blazek twins

The Two-Headed Nightingale

We usually associate freak shows with a less-enlightened era, before the development of modern ethics – possibly ending around the time of Tod Browning’s Freaks, by which time the concept of freak shows had become unpleasant enough for horror movie fodder. However, freak shows ended not so much because people’s interest in freaks waned but because the popularity of film eclipsed that of circuses and vaudeville (which is why many of Browning’s “freaks” saw his film as their big break into the new medium). Twenty-first-century audiences are as fascinated with deformity as were the Victorians, which current television shows such as Extraordinary People, BodyShock, Mystery Diagnosis, and Medical Mysteries demonstrate.

The “tree man” on Medical Mysteries

The most obvious mirroring of the nineteenth-century fascination with conjoined twins (especially young female pairs) is the media frenzy surrounding Abby and Brittany Hensel, a pair of conjoined twins who might have done well in vaudeville if they had been born a century or so earlier. Instead, they gained fame through the morning news and talk show circuit and starred in a 2013 BBC reality miniseries about their post-college adventures.

Abby and Brittany Hensel with some of the friends that co-starred in their reality series

One could argue that the perennial fascination with oddity inspires not only quasi-scientific shows on Discovery Health but the majority of reality television. It’s been said that the reason freak shows were so popular is that it feels good to feel better than someone else. Who could say that isn’t part of the attraction of blockbuster reality series like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and The Jersey Shore?

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo


  1. It’s really fascinating how you mention that freak shows are generally associated with a less-enlightened era where ethics were much less of a concern, but that modern day freak shows do still exist. They just might not be blatantly labeled a freak show, but instead hidden under the guise of an educational program or reality television.

    Most everyone is nosey by nature, so the opportunity to look more closely at someone’s life, especially if it is much different from ours, is hard to resist. This might be a reason why watching Abby and Brittany’s lives is so interesting, or why once you start watching one of those Discovery channel shows, you can’t stop watching. I’ve watched a few of these shows myself, the intrigue of difference drawing me in.

    You mentioned that freak shows, and modern day equivalents, had appeal because it feels good to feel better than someone else and I agree with this. It’s incredibly interesting to watch how other people live with their deformities, fun to laugh at Honey Boo Boo and her family, and entertaining to watch the people of Jersey Shore get into stupid, drunken fights. However, its nice to be able to turn the television off and return to your own life with a sense of “thank goodness my life isn’t like theirs!” It may sound bad, but, in many cases, it is the truth of why so many millions watch these shows.

  2. I find reality tv particularly peculiar. I say this as someone who doesn’t typically watch reality tv. I’m not entirely sure why I don’t like reality tv because, as Sam mentioned, many people are naturally nosey and I certainly lump myself into that category. I completely enjoy people watching but for some reason I don’t think of reality tv as people watching.

    I certainly agree with the discussion about reality tv. I think the “feel good” factor is a huge part of the attraction of reality tv along with idea that we can separate whatever is happening on screen from our own lives, if only by shutting off the tv. Still there is something about reality television that I just can’t seem to understand.

    I think this stems from my hesitancy to define reality tv as “realistic.” Perhaps I am just highly suspicious, but whenever I do find myself watching reality tv shows, I find myself constantly doubting what is happening. I guess I just can’t understand how anyone would feel comfortable, and act natural, with a camera crew following them around constantly. I know I wouldn’t.

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