To the House of Freaks
Prepare to see some people
with some very odd physiques
Sit back, my friends
Relax, my friends
The show is quite informal
Cause when you see these folks
You will be grateful that you're normal!
A sideshow act is a special show that involves people with strange or dangerous talents, and people with odd physical deformities or features.
Some popular staples of sideshows include:
- The Albino
- The Armless Wonder (or legless, or totally limbless)
- The Bearded Lady
- The Circassian Beauty (usually a non-Circassian white woman with hair styled like an afro)
- The Conjoined Twins (historically called "Siamese Twins" after the most famous example, Chang and Eng Bunker)
- The Contortionist
- The Deformed Man
- The Dwarf or the "Tiny Man/Woman"
- The Fat Man/Woman (often far heavier than a typical fat person—especially by the standards of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when freak shows were at the height of their popularity)
- The Firebreather
- The Fortune Teller
- The Giant
- The Guy with 11 Fingers or Toes
- The Hermaphrodite (often billed as "half man, half woman")
- Hollywood Natives (ostensibly recruited from remote corners of the world to show off their supposedly traditional attire and customs)
- The Knife Thrower
- The Living Skeleton
- The Pinhead (an antiquated term for someone with microcephaly)
- The Stage Magician
- The Strongman (often billed as the World's Strongest Man)
- The Sword Swallower
- The Tattooed Man or Woman
Sideshows can serve as interesting origin stories for characters. They can also be a hiding place for characters who genuinely aren't human or have supernatural powers to hide themselves in plain sight. After all, a traveling circus is just the place for an outcast to fit in without having to put down roots in a town.
At times, sideshow performers tend to be treated badly by the owners of the traveling circus or carnival. They often are paid little, abused, overworked, and dehumanized. They are gawked at by circus-goers and treated as a spectacle. In real life, however, outright abusive management was much less common than in fiction - many wiser sideshow owners recognised that without their acts they had no income, and dealt with them more fairly. (A notable example of both is the real case of Joseph "The Elephant Man" Merrick: his London manager Tom Norman paid him well and treated him with respect, contrary to the Historical Villain Upgrade he gets in many dramatisations, but a subsequent manager stole his money and dumped him alone and penniless in the Netherlands.)
Compare Circus of Fear; some "sideshow freaks" are not exactly the nicest guys, and may be very dangerous. (Having people taunting and staring at you all day long because of some aspect of your appearance or an unusual talent you have is stressful.) Watch your step. Not to be confused with Carnival of Killers, however, which is different.
Also compare Come to Gawk, which comes up frequently in works about freak shows, as well as the Point-and-Laugh Show, which is the TV version of this trope. The Barnum is likely to be running these shows. Not to be confused with Sideshow Bob of The Simpsons infamy, who's freaky in a different way.
- Mr Arashi's Amazing Freak Show features a plot that revolves around a young girl who must become part of a freakshow after particularly terrible circumstances.
- The DCU:
- In their comic book, the Wonder Twins were adopted after their parents' death to a plague; because of their special powers, they were subsequently adopted by the owner of a Space Circus. He only wanted them as part of their freak show.
- One storyline of Tales of the Dark Knight had Two-Face trying to rally up 'freaks' to fight back at society. At the end, it turns out they were actually very reluctant to follow him, and generally get along fairly well.
- A story in Detective Comics, again featuring Two-Face had him trying to resolve one of Harvey Dent's unfinished cases which involved a circus. The circus just happened to have Conjoined Twins in the freak show, who Two-Face alternated between feeling a connection to and despising, and who had differing opinions about Two-Face's brand of "justice".
- Killer Croc's backstory involves being a freak show exhibit due to his crocodilian appearance.
- Marvel Universe:
- In Spider-Man Noir, Norman Osborn recruited his inner circle from the circus, including Adrian Toomes/the Vulture, who was a freak before gaining a taste for human flesh. Norman himself was also a circus freak born with a rare disease that gave him scaly skin.
- The Blob started out this way. His act consisted of a dozen men trying to budge him without success, and then a marksman using a rifle with live ammo on him. While he had never considered himself anything more than "an extra-strong freak", the revelation that he was a mutant made his ego get the best of him, turning him into the villain he is now.
- Nightcrawler started out as a circus acrobat but left when a new owner decided he'd be a better draw in the freakshow.
- In the first Ghost Rider series from the 1970s/1980s, the Quentin Carnival where Johnny Blaze lived and worked as a stunt-rider included a sideshow with several freaks. A multiple-issue story arc featured a nasty villain called Freakmaster who took normal people and turned them into freaks, then put them in his sideshows.
- The French comic Grimion Gant De Cuir is about a boy with a Deadly Gaze who runs off with the circus, joining the freakshow which includes a dwarf and a bearded lady. He makes friends with them, but accidentally kills the bearded lady and runs away. Years later he runs into the dwarf who's sworn revenge and has made a Deal with the Devil to do so.
- The vocaloid fanfic Rotting Camellias features one of these in its Circus of Fear. The patrons of the circus cannot go into the freak tent, however, and must look into the peepholes along the side of the tent in order to view the freaks in their cage. This freakshow features Rin and Len as unnaturally Conjoined Twins, Kaito as a man with sharp teeth who acts more like an animal, and eventually Miku, after she is kidnapped by the circus and flowers begin to bloom all over her body.
- There was at one point a Massive Multiplayer Crossover forum roleplay where several protagonists from various animated media have been turned into freaks for a Circus of Fear run by various villains. The main plot was these characters trying to escape and cure those who had been altered. Naturally it was pretty depressing with even some of the more optimistic threads having things like characters bonding over missing the loved ones they left behind when they got captured or adult freaks being horrified that children have been captured as well.
- Vow of Nudity: This is the core theme behind all the attractions at the circus Spectra works for. Not only are her changeling attributes hyped up in her routine, her internal narration notes that a 'fat man and painted lady' were the performance before her.
- In Monster House, Constance was the fat lady locked up in a cage to be mocked until she was rescued by Mr. Nebbercracker. Even after being freed she still hated children due to her memories of constant mockery from them.
- The 1932 film Freaks is about one such place; given its early date, it may be the Trope Codifier for movies. It's infamous for using real-life freak show acts as actors. They try to thwart a gold-digging trapeze artist and her strongman boyfriend in the film. They succeed. Oh God, do they ever...
- The Elephant Man focused on John Merrick being part of a sideshow, because parts of his body were horribly disfigured, giving him the nickname of the Elephant Man. Merrick was being exhibited in the squalid Belgian freak show. (In real life, Joseph Merrick entered these shows voluntarily for the sake of his own livelihood. He was actually treated pretty well ... until a new manager stole his money and abandoned him in Brussels, forcing Merrick to try find his way back to England.)
- The film Freaked sees the main character turned into a sideshow freak. The show he ends up in is called "Freak Land."
- In the film The Funhouse Gunther's dead infant brother is jarred and used as a freak show attraction.
- The Mad Scientist Carl Stoner is secretly working on a serum that will transform a human being into an intelligent king cobra in the film Sssssss. His less-than-successful trials on unwitting victims resulted in humanoid serpents that were sold to a traveling circus as exhibits.
- Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away: Several of these, sword swallower, bearded lady, tattooed (and pierced) man, are seen as Mia wanders around the old circus in the beginning before she goes to the main tent.
- The 2001 film, Wolf Girl (aka Blood Moon) has Tara, a girl with hypertrichosis, who is exhibited at "Harley Dune's Travelling Freak Show". Several actual sideshow performers have cameos in the movie.
- Batman Returns: This was part of the Penguin's backstory. He ran with the Red Triangle Circus as an "aquatic bird boy" in the circus's freak show. When the circus was shut down following reports of missing children, the news reports tell that "one freak show performer vanished before he could be questioned."
- Much of the supporting cast of Big Top Pee-wee are freakshow/circus performers, including a bearded lady, a tiny woman, a dog-faced boy, and a Half-Man Half-Woman.
- A fake one in The Show. Robin's rather low-rent circus sideshow includes women made up to resemble a mermaid, a half-woman (no legs), and a spider woman.
- Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald: Nagini is first seen in a traveling freak show along with other outcasts and creatures considered odd even by the wizarding world before she escapes with Credence.
- Multiple Maniacs has The Cavalcade of Perversions, which include guys kissing, a "puke-eater" and a photographer snapping the crotch of a nude woman. It's a front for robbing and killing spectators.
- X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes has a very tame one where the only acts we see are a pair of belly dancers and Dr. Xavier's "mind reading" act as Mentallo where he uses his X-Ray Vision to see the contents of the envelopes of the spectators.
- Freaks Out is an Italian film that can be summarized as "superpowered circus freaks against Nazis in 1940s Rome". The strongman has hypertrichosis, the ballerina has electric powers, the tamer is an albino who can control insects and the clown is a dwarf with magnetic powers.
- The Saga of Darren Shan has the Cirque du Freak that the main character travels with for some time. Subverted in that it is more of a haven for assorted supernatural beings, and the performers are not treated badly at all. And then things get nasty when a self-proclaimed "eco-warrior" doesn't believe they could have a good reason to chain up the wolfman...
- Geek Love is a book featuring a family of freaks engineered by their carny parents and the cult that ensues.
- A Series of Unfortunate Events: the Baudelaires join a freakshow in the 9th book, "The Carnivorous Carnival", which feature a hunchback, a contortionist, and an ambidextrous man. The thing is, the ambidextrous man considers himself a freak because ambidextrous people are not a common thing and people really do consider him a freak no different than conjoined twins.
- The main characters in the first half of Nightmare Alley all work for a travelling carnival. Stan is the Stage Magician, Bruno is The Strongman, Kenneth is the tiny person, Zeena is the Fortune Teller (aided her by her husband Pete) and Molly is the 'Electric Girl', a glorified showgirl in a skimpy metal bikini who can seemingly take large electrical currents into her body in a replica of the Sing-Sing electric chair.
- Robert Silverberg's "The Man Who Never Forgot" has a short segment where the protagonist uses his perfect recall as "The Human Tape Recorder" in order to support himself.
- The only real draw (and the only "real" exhibit) at Dumfrey's Dime Museum in Curiosity House is the freak show, featuring a fat lady, a giant, a bearded lady, an alligator boy (seventy-four years old), a dwarf, a magician, an "owl boy", a strong boy, a knife thrower, a contortionist, and a mentalist.
- 3rd Rock from the Sun: Harry had been kidnapped by a character played by Phil Hartman at the end of season 3. Due to Hartman's death, the arc was semi-aborted; at the beginning of the following season, the rest of the family find Harry working as "Hargo the Alien" in a carnival sideshow, having been sold to the sideshow owner by his kidnapper.
- "The Message" episode of Firefly had one of these on a space station displaying an "alien life form", which Simon identifies as a mutated cow fetus.
- Freakshow is a reality show about a house full of these performers.
- The X-Files: The "Humbug" episode takes place in a Florida retirement community for former sideshow freaks. An undeveloped conjoined twin separates himself from his brother at night and goes on a killing spree.
- Torchwood: The team investigates a freakshow seemingly from an old-time movie reel come to life. To the team's surprise, their resident Immortal used to travel with them, presenting his ability to get better after dying as part of the act.
- Grimm: Nick learns of a sideshow that displays Wesen as freaks. One has a gimmick of getting "loose" and the sideshow ringmaster has to "kill" him nightly.
- In one episode of My Name Is Earl, "Sticks & Stones", Earl and Randy encounter a community of retired sideshow freaks.
- Breakout Kings: The escapee from the "Freakshow" episode was conceived after the midget and the fat lady from a freakshow slept together on a drunken dare.
- The Glades: The "Gibtown" episode is set in the Real Life Gibsonton, a community populated by the descendants of retired freaks.
- Much of the action in Carnivàle revolves around the titular traveling carnival, which includes among its sideshows a bearded lady, conjoined twins, a strongman, a man with lizard scales, and (briefly) a faith healer.
- American Horror Story: Freak Show, the fourth season of the American Horror Story franchise, follows one of the last remaining freak shows in The United States and how they struggle to survive internal conflicts within their family as well as outside forces that threaten their safety. The freaks themselves, portrayed both by the show's regulars and by people with real disabilities, are quite friendly so long as you don't cross them.
- Get Smart: In the episode "The Greatest Spy On Earth" Max goes undercover at the Farnum and Daly Circus, which is secretly a KAOS front organization. They have a strongman, a knife thrower, a little person, and a half-man/half-woman named Gertude-Gerald (or Gertie-Gerry for short).
- Lost Girl: During her investigation in the "Something Wicked This Fae Comes" episode, Bo comes across a group of outcast Fae called the Sluagh who are cursed to wander the Earth. The Sluagh work as a travelling sideshow since several of their members are too freaky to pass as normal people.
Bo: Fae Hiding in Plain Sight as circus peeps. That's pretty clever.
Zael: Well, it was the circus back in the 1800s. Then sideshow freaks, vaudevillians. Nowadays, we're more industrial performance artists. It's a great way for our kind to pass out in the open.
- One episode of Murdoch Mysteries had a murder in a circus. The episode showed the gap between performers and freaks.
- In Penny Dreadful, Frankenstein's Monster gets a job in a waxworks run by the Putney family, who believe he's just a deformed man. They initially treat him well, but it's finally revealed that they intend to imprison him and use him as the nucleus of a freakshow, in which they'll make him keep other captive freaks in line. This is a very bad idea on their part.
- A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017) adapts the novel, now with a Villain Song by Count Olaf as the ringmaster, and a Running Gag of the Hook-Handed Man taking part in the overall evil plan, but acting indignant whenever anyone, in or out of the ring takes him to be one of them.
- In The Librarians (2014) episode "...and the Tears of a Clown", the team are investigating a Circus of Fear when the ringmaster's magic transforms them into freak show exhibits. Jake becomes a strongman, Eve a two-headed woman, Cassandra a mermaid, and Ezekiel a snake-charmer.
- Tom Waits: In "Lucky Day Overture" from The Black Rider Tom plays a circus promoter promising "human oddities" such as a three-headed baby, Hitler's brain, the human pincushion, a seal boy with flippers for arms, the man born without a body, and more!
- Orbital's "I Wish I Had Duck Feet" samples a carny's advertisement for the freak show and sets it to music.
- Silverchair's second album, Freak Show, has the overall theme of this trope.
- The Ramones' "Pinhead" was inspired by Freaks, with the chant of "Gabba Gabba Hey" being derived from "Gooba Gabba Gooba Gabba."
- The Residents' Freak Show.
- One Garfield comic had Garfield and Jon go to the circus. Jon started talking about the freakshow he was looking forward to. Garfield gestured to the assorted weirdos also waiting in line at the ticket booth and told Jon to save his money.
- Call of Cthulhu supplement Curse of the Chthonians, adventure "Dark Carnival". A number of the Cthulhu Mythos cultists are freaks, including the Strong Man, an India Rubber Man (contortionist), a Fat Lady, and Co-Co the Dog-Boy.
- Dungeons & Dragons
- Ravenloft supplement Carnival. The Carnival is a traveling freak show that acts as a refuge for people who need a haven from danger. After being with the Carnival for a while a character will undergo "The Twisting", which will turn them into a freak as well.
- CM4 Earthshaker. Milos Formiesias' Traveling Exhibition of Wonders has a Cursed Seer (all of his predictions are dead wrong), a live medusa (viewed through an arrangement of mirrors), and Morphiras the Immortal Woman (actually a fake).
- The GURPS Villains supplement includes a psychic vampire who runs a freak show, along with his cannibalistic were-jaguar sister.
- Vampire: The Requiem: "Bloodlines: The Legendary" gives us a vampiric bloodline called the Carnival that was founded by Anulka, the Bohemian Mermaid, a sideshow freak who toured Europe with a small circus during the 18th century. The bodies of those embraced into the bloodline become twisted with circus-freak deformities that make them outcasts even amongst other vampires. The bloodline's Discipline, called The Show, allows them to become even more bizarre, putting on a performance that both captivates and revolts the audience.
- The Old World of Darkness crossover game Midnight Circus has a freakshow of its very own in the form of a pressboard building known only as Freak City. The freaks on display are a rather varied bunch, including victims of birth defects, magical creatures, and full-blown fomori. Dog-faced detectives, hermaphrodites, midget families, animated scarecrows, and two-headed monsters are just some of the creatures that can be encountered here, the undisputed master of the place being a nine-foot-tall blob of foul-smelling blubber known only as the Cone of Flesh. Given the overall malevolence of the Midnight Circus, visitors to Freak City run the risk of suffering cumulative deformities for every minute they stay there; lingering long enough will result in your character being transformed into one of the freaks and joining the show.
- There's technically two of these in the Midnight Circus; the second of them is Dr Owl's Museum of Oddities, which is really just a glorified prison for the many supernatural beings that the Circus has captured. With most of them crippled and depowered by Owl's corrosive banality, they're downtrodden enough to be exhibited as harmless freaks to paying customers.
- In Lady in the Dark, the third Dream Sequence has Liza Elliott as the feature attraction of the Greatest Show on Earth: "The Woman Who Cannot Make up Her Mind!"
- In the Australian production of Love Never Dies, there is a freakshow called Phantasma during "The Beauty Underneath". Some of the freaks featured include pinheads, a cyclops, a winged fairy, a mermaid, a man with never-cut fingernails, etc., most of them housed in mirrored obelisks. The setup is rather glamorous, especially considering that the Phantom, who grew up in a freak show, was imprisoned in a cage and, in the movie version abused.
- The Phantom of the Opera: This is where Madame Giry first saw the man who would become the Phantom, a deformed man in a cage.
- The Grinning Man: The Stokes Croft/Trafalgar Fair (depending on if you're watching the Bristol or London production) where a majority of the plot takes place. Notable attractions include the eponymous Grinning Man, a pickled horse, and someone called Hubert and his anal snake.
- In Bully one can visit a freakshow. There showcased are several different kinds of odd people, including a pair of Conjoined Twins and a mermaid lady.
- "The Freak Show" is a particular level in the game CarnEvil. It features a bevy of strange monsters and plenty of posters alluding to particular freaks at the show.
- Played for laughs, like most things in The Darkside Detective: A Fumble in the Dark, when the protagonists visit a traveling carnival. The freak show is not shown, but a poster advertises its three star attractions: a Beardless Lady, a Man Descended From Apes, and a Half Man, Half The Other Half Of The Same Man.
- In the game Medievil 2 there is a freakshow level, complete with plenty of corpulent bearded lady nooks.
- The plot of Sam & Max Hit the Road is kicked off by the Cushman Brothers Carnival calling in the Freelance Police to find their missing Bigfoot and Giraffe-Necked Girl. The Cushman Brothers themselves are Conjoined Twins, and other acts at the carnival include the faucet-headed "Human Enigma" and a fire-eater.
- Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions has two mentions of freak shows.
- Two posters for a freakshow in the carnival level features a fat man that bears a striking resemblance to X-Men villain Blob, especially fitting since his origin was him as a sideshow freak, and another advertises a Fantastic Rubber Man.
- The reason that Goblin, Vulture, and Hammerhead are villains was that they were all in a freak show; this may explain away some of their less than savory behavior.
- The cartoon Freak Show is all about a group of heroes called the "Freak Squad".
- In the Teen Titans (2003) episode "How Long is Forever?", it is shown that this is what became of Beast Boy, being called a One Man Zoo after he tried being a solo hero only to end up getting beat up a lot.
- The Simpsons: Homer joins the travelling Freak Show associated with (the Simpsons universe equivalent of) Lollapalooza, as a man who catches a cannonball with his own stomach.
- Ben 10 has a group of minor recurring villains called the Circus Freak Trio. The members include: Acid Breath, a zombie-looking man who can breathe acid; Thumbskull, a Dumb Muscle strong man with a toenail on his head; and Frightwig, a Dark Action Girl with Prehensile Hair.
- Beavis And Butthead went to a freakshow where they flirted inappropriately with the contortionist and were forced to join as Siamese twins.
- One episode of South Park had 'freaks' protesting the ban on 'freak shows' that they depend on for their livelihood, pointing out that they're necessary for 'non-freaks' to feel better about themselves. They also protest the rise of trashy tabloid talk shows showcasing out-of-control teenagers for stealing their business.
- The Batman: The Animated Series episode "Sideshow" featured a group of retired performers: Richard, a hunchback; May and June, Conjoined Twins; Goliath, a strongman; and young Billy the Seal Boy. Killer Croc ends up befriending them but in the end, he still betrays them.
- Batman: The Brave and the Bold: In "The Last Patrol!", Larry Trainor (a.k.a. Negative Man) has been working in the freakshow of a very downmarket carnival since the Doom Patrol disbanded.
- Totally Spies! featured a villain called the Ringmaster, a four-armed freak once known as the Octopus Boy in his youth. He planned to turn the people he kidnapped, including the spies, into half-animal freaks as he believes today's standards for a carnival have eroded the tradition.