20 March 2009

Welcome to the Freak Show

As someone who works with the developmentally disabled population, I have always found the concept of traveling circus' and freak shows to be a bit disturbing. Recently, however, I developed a renewed interest in the phenomena after my boyfriend and I engaged in a marathon viewing session of Seasons One and Two of the HBO series Carnivale. Carnivale, which aired from September 2003 through March 2005, focuses on life during the Great Depression. Series creator Daniel Knauf illustrated the trials and tribulations of carnie folk who find themselves emerged in a battle of good verses evil. Unfortunately, the series was discontinued after two seasons due to the massive amounts of funding required for filming.

Knauf used Depression era carnivals as his back drop, due to the juxtaposition between innocent carnival goers and the magic that appears to lurk inside the dusty tents. Besides common sideshow acts such as a bearded lady and snake charmer, Knauf explored the complexity of how society treated those who were considered different. In a pivotal scene, Ben Hawkins (a character who is representative of the Biblical paradigm of salvation through redemption), is sent forth to find a girl with deformities known as the "lobster girl". It is apparent to views that the girl has been shut away from society; as a sideshow freak, she is able to earn wages and emerge into the world.

As the series progresses, viewers learn that Ben Hawkins is the adversary of Brother Justin. Brother Justin, who is excellent portrayed by Clancy Brown, is a Methodist minister who initially believes he was intended by God to bring forth His message. As time progresses, Brother Justin turns from the more conservative views of the Methodist church towards the fire and brimstone message associated with the Evangelical branch of Protestantism. Brother Justin's massive appeal evokes images of the historic Azusa Street Revival, a Pentacostal revival which took place in California from 1906 through 1915. As his movement grows, Brother Justin begins to receive criticism that is similar to what was given to participants in the Azusa revival.

However, as time progresses, it is apparent that while Ben Hawkins heals the ill and disabled, Brother Justin is intent on propegating his own agenda. Throughout the series, Ben is drawn to those are disabled or injured and attempts to aid them. Through Ben, Daniel Knauf conveys the message that Depression era society sought to either fetishize the disabled or exclude them. Other than Ben, no one truly attempts to help society's disabled. In the clip below, Ben attempts to heal carnival goers who are in need, while Brother Justin has his own plans.

In a more contemporary spin of the side show, Asbury Lanes will be hosting the act Freaks of the 999 Eyes on April 9, 2009 at 8:00 p.m. The show consists of acts such as the Lobster Girl and Elephant Man, who have chosen to use their disabilities or conditions as part of an old-fashioned sideshow. Coming on the heels of my non-stop Carnivale marathon, I am excited to see what Freaks of 999 Eyes have to offer.

As an advocate for individuals with disabilities, I must add that all members of this modern day performance have willingly chosen to participate. Do you consider sideshows to be a tool for exploiting people or do you think that our politically correct society can use a little stirring up? Leave your comments, as I will continue to explore this topic, after the April 9th show.

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