When you think of the term “freak show” you might imagine scenes from a bygone era, like P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. Years ago, people born with disabilities were often put on display as sideshow attractions in nearly every circus and carnival. In most cases, these performers were glad to be a part of a “freak show” because it meant that they had a steady job. It also gave them a community after years of being rejected by society. Some were even able to achieve fame and fortune with their talents. Today, though, there is a stigma against gawking at people who are different, and the word “freak” is considered highly offensive.
Freak shows have dwindled as the years have passed, but they haven’t totally gone away. For many, performing has become a side-hustle on top of a regular 9-to-5 job, but that doesn’t make them any less special. Here are 10 incredible examples of freak show performances in modern times…
10. The Kingdom of the Little People
In China, there is an amusement park called “The Kingdom of the Little People,” which is dedicated to housing dwarves who live, work, and perform there. But this isn’t some antiquated attraction that was built a hundred years ago. In fact, it was created in 2009 by a real estate mogul named Chen Ming. During an interview with Reuters, he said that he opened the park as a way to do good.
In China, it is incredible difficult for dwarves to find a job. By creating the park, Chen Ming is providing employment and housing to over 100 little people. Not all of them have to dance and sing in front of an audience, either. There are plenty of cashiers, groundskeepers, accountants, artists, sales representatives, and security guards who work there, as well. As an added bonus, everyone who works there earns a salary equivalent to the average Chinese college graduate.
The park has received plenty of criticism, of course. Advocates of dwarfism all over the world believe that this park will do more harm than good, because it is highlighting their differences, rather than pushing for them to be integrated into Chinese society. Vice News made a documentary investigating the conditions of the park. When they interviewed the performers, they seemed to actually be very happy and grateful. Some even left behind their full-time careers elsewhere in favor of being in the Kingdom of the Little People, because it meant that they could be part of a community that totally accepted them as they are.
9. The Wolf Boy
A genetic condition called Hypertrichosis, also known as “werewolf syndrome,” has been around for centuries. As the name suggests, werewolf syndrome causes people to grow an abnormal amount of body hair, to the point where it even covers their entire face. One of the most famous examples of this was a man named Petrus Gonsalvus. He and his wife Catherine are remembered as the inspiration for Beauty and the Beast.
In modern times, there are only about 100 people in the world who are born with hypertrichosis, and the most well-known is Larry Gomez. He was born in Mexico, and moved to the United States in order to get into show business. Gomez became a regular installment at the Venice Beach Freak Show in California, where he went by his stage name, “Wolf Boy.” Since then, he has grown a career as a working actor. He has appeared in several documentaries, TV shows, and movies, including the Hollywood film Water for Elephants.
8. Lobster Boy
Multiple generations of the Stiles family were afflicted with a genetic condition known as ectrodactyly, which is where fingers are fused together and resemble claws or flippers. Grady Stiles was born in 1937, and he was called “Lobster Boy” all his life. He appeared in sideshows, just like his father before him.
While living at the circus, Stiles married a woman named Mary Herzog, who performed as “The Electrified Girl.” The two married, and had children who were also born with ectrodactyly. Grady Stiles could not walk, so he needed to use a wheelchair. This gave him a tremendous amount of upper-body strength. Even though he was disabled, he was strong enough to beat his wife and children whenever he went on a bender.
This violence escalated to a breaking point for the family when his daughter became pregnant out of wedlock by a fellow circus performer. Stiles grabbed a shotgun, and killed his daughter’s boyfriend. He stood trial for the murder, but he got away with 15 years on probation, simply because the jail was not equipped to house someone with his disability.
After this incident, he was confident that he could get away with just about anything, since he had already gotten away with murder. He began to threaten his wife and children, who woke up to find Stiles holding a knife to their throats while they slept. His wife paid a local assassin named Chris Wayant $1,500 to shoot Grady in the back of the head. Ironically, Wayant did, in fact, end up with life in prison for the murder of the Lobster Boy.
7. Gibsonton, Florida, AKA “Showtown, USA”
For years, the entire town of Gibsonton, Florida became a go-to place for circus performers to live during the winter months, when it was too cold to travel with a circus. Because of this, it earned the reputation as being an entire town of giants, bearded ladies, dwarves, and more. Many of the performers who lived and worked in Gibsonton appeared in the 1932 movie Freaks.
Residents abided by “the carny code,” which meant that they supported one another unconditionally, no matter what they were going through.
Ward Hall, the ringmaster who has been called “King of the Sideshow,” proudly ran his freak shows in Gibsonton until he passed away in 2018, at 88-years-old. During an interview with The Guardian, he fondly remembered the days when they had a self-sustaining community, similar to the Kingdom of the Little People. Many former performers have chosen to retire there in their old age, but the number of performances have dramatically dwindled. Fewer people in the United States feel the need to congregate somewhere that offers a community-style living for freak show performers, and some day, Gibsonton will be a distant memory.
6. The Stalking Cat
There are cat people, and dog people. And then there are people who have gone above and beyond to become one with their favorite animals. Dennis Avner was of Native American descent, and he truly believed that the tiger was his totem animal, or guardian spirit. When it was time for him to choose a spiritual name, he declared himself “The Stalking Cat.”
After serving in the US Navy and becoming a computer programmer, Avner decided to make his outside match his totem animal inside. He had multiple surgeries on his ears and face, including implants that allowed for him to have a cat-like face with whiskers. He grew his nails out and sharpened them into claws, got tiger stripe tattoos, and wore special contact lenses. When he smiled, you could see that he even had his human teeth had been replaced with sharp fangs.
Most people called him “The Cat Man,” and Avner appeared in several documentaries, TV shows, and live performances in Las Vegas. During an interview, he said, “I am probably one of the more recognizable people in the world, but my fame has not brought me fortune.” He lived in a trailer in his hometown of Tonopah, Nevada. Doctors diagnosed Avner with body dysmorphia, and he received a lot of negativity after appearing in the public eye. His struggles would get the best of him, and in 2012, he committed suicide at 54-years-old.
5. Space Cowboy
When Chayne Hultgren was a young boy growing up in Australia, he learned how to ride a unicycle, and he started to cruise around town. People were so impressed they actually started throwing money at him. He realized at a young age that he could make money by doing tricks, and devoted the rest of his life to getting better and better at public performances.
Today, he is better known as his stage name, “Space Cowboy.” He holds not just one, but five Guinness World Records for the following sideshow acts: juggling chainsaws while on a unicycle, carrying the most weight on hooks attached to his eye sockets, most swords swallowed underwater, most knives thrown at a target in one minute, and most blowtorches extinguished with his tongue in under one minute. Phew! It’s hard to imagine that one person can do so much (or would even attempt some of those feats). There probably won’t be many people trying to upstage him anytime soon.
4. The Enigma
For years, tattooed men and women were included as performers in circus freak shows. Today, it’s common for people to tattoo their entire body, so you really have to go above and beyond to make an impression. Paul Lawrence started out his life of performing as a musician, and he became a founding member of the Jim Rose Circus in Seattle, Washington. The group would perform at the Lollapalooza music festival, and at first, Lawrence called himself “Slug” and swallowed insects in front of the crowd. After a while, this was no longer impressing audiences.
So he decided to change his act — and his life — forever. Lawrence got implants in his face to resemble devil’s horns, his ears reshaped, and tattoos of jigsaw puzzle pieces all over his body. At this point, he changed his stage name to “The Enigma.” Since paying for his body modifications, The Enigma has become famous around the world for his striking appearance. He has appeared in Ripley’s Believe it Or Not, and holds the Guinness World Record for the most jigsaw pieces tattooed on a single body. He travels the world giving live musical performances, and meets his adoring fans at tattoo conventions.
3. The Lizard Man
A man named Erik Sprague was just your average college student. He got a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and was a candidate to earn his PhD from the University of Albany when he suddenly decided to change his entire life. He underwent body modification surgery to look like one of those humanoid lizard creatures that conspiracy theorists are always talking about. His tongue was split down the middle to make it reptilian, and his entire body has been tattooed with green scales. He also paid for ridges to be implanted where his eyebrows used to be, and his teeth have been filed down into carnivorous spikes.
So… why would anyone do all of this to their body? Really, he just felt like it. During an interview, he said, “I’m a big Godzilla fan. So I became the cool movie monster I wanted to see.”
Instead of turning against humanity to join the evil Lizard Elite, Sprague has been using his reptilian powers for good. He has appeared on several TV shows, including Ripley’s Believe it or Not. He now goes by his stage name, “The Lizard Man.”
A man who is only known as Morgue was a performer at the Venice Beach Freak Show who did sword swallowing, as well as other tricks like regurgitating steel billiard balls. After appearing on AMC’s Freakshow, he gained a huge following on Instagram, where he calls himself a “philosopher” and a “revolutionary.”
The Venice Beach Freak Show was forced to shut down in 2017. While sword swallowing truly is an impressive skill, there are few jobs out there that look for that on a resume. Since there are so few opportunities for employment in the sideshow industry anymore, Morgue has written several essays and books with his own personal philosophy, in hopes of starting his own cult called Hyperionism. He claims to use mathematical equations to help someone become “hyperian,” or reach the next level of enlightenment. He is requesting monetary donations toward his cause, but we really have no idea how well that plan is going for him.
1. The Checkered Man
Matt Gone goes by the nickname “The Checkered Man,” because he has tattooed 99% of his body, which includes a checkerboard pattern on his face. Yes… even they whites of his eyes, tongue, and private areas are covered with ink. The remaining 1% accounts for the palms of his hands and feet.
Gone was born with a birth defect known as “Poland Syndrome,” which is when someone is born without certain muscles, and it can also affect the functions of internal organs. Gone was forced to undergo several surgeries throughout his life, and he grew up feeling insecure about his body. As an adult, he began tattooing his body as a way to cover up the surgical scars. This helped to improve his confidence, and he just kept going from there. He now holds the Guinness World Record for being the most tattooed person in the world. Rather than performing in freak shows full-time, he works as a professional chef, but he has appeared on TV on several occasions.