In 1629, a man named Lazarus and his parasitic twin brother, who was attached to his chest and dangled in front of him with his left leg sticking out, his eyes shut and his mouth open, decided to take a European tour.
The original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, toured the world as an inseparable duo in the 1830s before settling down as slave-owning plantation owners, marrying two sisters and fathering 10 and 11 children respectively.
In the 19th century, P.T. Barnum made a name for Tom Thumb the Midget, Fji mermaids and the wild men of Borneo, wowing the crowd at the first World’s Fair and the first freak show set up shop at Coney Island. A four-legged woman, a live two-headed baby in a jar of formaldehyde, lobster boys, frog boys and hermaphrodite siblings all made the carnival and circus circuit, provoking amazement, fear and pity among small town citizens and parochial farmers. But in the 20th century, due to human rights activists, political correctness and the advent of MTV and the Internet, the Freak Show became almost obsolete.
Now, there is only one authentic freak show in the world, as confirmed by National Geographic magazine, the 999 Eyes Freak Show.
“The 999 Eyes Freakshow is the only show that has human anomalies as vaudeville performers,” explains Laurent the Clown, a performer and co-organizer of the show. “We celebrate diversity and genetic difference. Even though there is no vulgarity, it is very much a taboo show. We don’t have disabled performers putting on a show, we have atypical performers putting on a show, and it doesn’t really sit with people well.”
The vaudeville variety show features 12 performers total, each born with a genetic variation that makes them strikingly and irremediably different from the rest of the human race. “Lobster Girl” is missing three middle sets of metacarpals and phalanges that cause her hands to look like lobster claws. The “Gentle Giant” is 7’3” tall, while Little Miss Firefly stands at 27”.
The show also includes karate demonstrations, whip artists, a jazz singer, sword swallowing, glass walking, magic tricks, skits and storytelling as well as THAT Damned Band, a folk band that employs an accordion, clarinet, fiddle and banjo to recreate a traditional folk sound. Its MySpace page describes the band’s sounds as “A circus train wrecked into a hobo camp where wandering Jews and gypsies from eastern Europe have been learning Irish drinking songs from Tom Waits.”
“We’re trying to recreate the world and make it a place where difference is beautiful. We are trying to reclaim the word ‘freak,’” says Laurent. “They are freaks. They are stars. They are empowered.”