Otherness as entertainment: the Victorian-era freak show and its legacy in contemporary popular culture

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Southern New Hampshire University
This research seeks to provide a more detailed examination of the fate of the Victorian-era freak show than provided in the historiography. The prominent contention is that once the specific maladies became known, the performers lost their draw as being mysterious and inexplicable. Consequentially, the freaks became human in the eyes of society and our ‘wonder’ was supplanted by sympathy and shame at our subjecting them to such degrading exploitation. The problem addressed in the following thesis is that there is little, if any, historical evidence to support this notion other than the conclusions drawn by a prominent sociologist. On the contrary, there exists ample evidence in the historical record that support three connected conclusions: First, the demise of the freak show cannot be divorced in the timeline from the decline of the circus and there exist numerous causal factors for the decline of both. Second, the public’s appetite for freak shows was based on spectacle and otherness and that that continues today. And the third conclusion is that of all the facets which made up the great railroad circus industry, the only one able to translate to the screen and thereby evolve to meet the requirement of modern mass media entertainment was the freak show. The circus is all but gone. The dime museums have long since faded. The freaks, however, and their varying expressions of otherness live on in contemporary popular culture. (Author abstract)