Room Two: Sensationalized

A brief history of the Freak Show
"The freak was 'fabricated from the raw material of bodily variations' for entirely social purposes; the 'freak of nature' was always in fact a 'freak of culture.'"


"The freak, while monstrous, was thus also a comic character precisely because his or her physical difference was transgressive and therefore inherently ridiculous."


"Regardless of whether freaks had excess body hair, atypical skin, misshapen limbs, or merely skin color and other physical traits uncommon among their “Caucasian” audiences, human novelties often enhanced their performances by adopting the persona of a liminal being that occupied the borderland between human and animal."


Joseph Merrick, British Freak Show

Stage Name: "The Elephant Man"

Cause of Disfigurement: Proteus Syndrome

Grady Stiles, American Freak Show

Stage Name: "The Lobster Boy"

Cause of Disfigurement: Ectrodactyly

Carl Norwood, American Freak Show

Stage Name: "The Frog Boy"

Cause of Disfigurement: Parastremmatic Dwarfism

The Deformito-Mania
Cartoon (1847)

In this cartoon, the British satirical magazine, Punch, mocks the Victorian era’s voracious appetite for disfigurement. Reflecting the attitudes of 19th century Britain, this cartoon depicts people frantically trying to fight their way into the Freak Show, to visit the different "halls of ugliness." Each hall boasts its superior exhibition of ugliness — "the greatest deformity in the world" versus "by far the ugliest biped" versus "THIS is the plus ultra of hideousness." In the 19th century, Disfigurement had been transformed into a sensational commodity; the ordinary audience indulged in shows of 'ugliness' from a comfortable distance. Disfigured individuals were not perceived as human beings — they were obscure creatures, unusual sights to see, and thrilling performers.

"The exaggerated, sensationalized discourse that is the freak show’s essence ranged over the seemingly singular bodies that we would now call either 'physically [disfigured]' or 'exotic ethnics,' framing them and heightening their differences from viewers, who were rendered comfortably common and safely standard by the exchange."


we thank you for your support, enjoy the exhibit