Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Dark Side of Vintage Carnival Sideshows

Carnivals have weird music, bright lights, strange sounds, clowns, funhouses and sideshows. They are run by what we equate with traveling gypsies who have no connection to our community and who are often times antisocial folks who are seen as "freaks."

So, why do we find a roadside carnival setting up as a sign of mischief and fun?

Screams and thrills never have a season. There is something about being where everything is happening at once that draws people; just look at Las Vegas. There are thrills on rides, trying to win prizes, in a funhouse, and most definitely at sideshow displays.

Can it get any creepier than a funhouse having a REAL display and not a paper maiche one? Here's the story -

In 1976, the show "Six Million Dollar Man" was filming an episode at a haunted house in an amusement park in Long Beach, CA.  They were moving around a prop of a hanging man and the arm broke off, exposing human bones. The body was that of Elmer McCurdy, who was killed in a train robbery shoot out in 1911. The local mortician embalmed him and set him upright in his shop's corner.

The mortician charged folks 5 cents to view the body and they paid by putting the nickle in the dead man's mouth. Eventually, some men showed up years later and claimed him as their brother. They were actually sideshow promoters. They took the body on the road.  And, as the story gets even weirder (the theme here), the body was finally buried in Oklahoma and concrete poured atop the casket to keep him from touring anymore.


Many sideshows are plagued with "rogue taxidermy" and perhaps the most infamous is the supposed Fiji mermaid, but here are some entertaining quilt work of the animal world paraded as aberrations.


Of course, sideshow performers are the things of nightmares. We watch, but we don't want to, but we can't stop.  Folks swallow swords, toss knives, and pound nails into their skulls.

Abandoned Sideshow

For those of us who love urban exploration - an abandoned funhouse is pretty cool -

Suggested books 

Step Right Up: Stories of Carnivals, Sideshows and the Circus

Secrets of the Sideshows by Joe Nickell


These hardworking carnival "freaks" were usually people with genetic and birth defects. They might have had hypertrichosis and hair all over them like Julia Pastrano- 

Many others had oddities, like very long nails, hair, a beard on a woman, were short, tall, heavy, or were conjoined twins and those born with limb deformities.

Today's circus freaks are likely to be those with purposeful deformities like tattoos, piercings and implants. They also may swing around on meat hooks through their flesh. They are freaks by choice. 

Flea Circus

In the turn of the century between the 19th and 20th centuries, flea circuses were the rate. People would pay to see the tiny little circus set up and the fleas performing.

Carnival Barkers

These loud and obnoxious circus workers were put out near the crowd to "bark" out the attractions and draw people in to see the displays. They often used fantastic descriptions, gesturing, making eye contact and pointing at people in the crowd to shame them into participating.

Getting in the mood

If the clowns wandering around our towns in America aren't enough to creep you out or the rickety noisy rollercoasters on tiny tracks in carnivals are enough to keep you at home, consider some movies that put you there for thrills and chills without the noise and crowds.  (IMDB descriptions)

It (1990) In 1960, seven outcast kids known as "The Loser Club" fight an evil demon who poses as a child-killing clown. Thirty years later, they reunite to stop the demon once and for all when it returns to their hometown.

The Funhouse (1981) Four teenage friends spend the night in a carnival funhouse and are stalked by a deformed man in a Frankenstein mask.

Carnival of Souls (1962) After a traumatic accident, a woman becomes drawn to a mysterious abandoned carnival.

Freaks (1932) A circus' beautiful trapeze artist agrees to marry the leader of side-show performers, but his deformed friends discover she is only marrying him for his inheritance.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) In a small American town, a diabolical circus and its demonic proprietor prey on the townsfolk.

Clownhouse (1989) Just before Halloween, three young brothers alone in a big house are menaced by three escaped mental patients who have murdered some traveling circus clowns and taken their identities.

Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988) 
Aliens who look like clowns come from outer space and terrorize a small town.

Carnival of Blood (1970) A psychopathic killer uses the carousel ride at a carnival to pick his victims, whom he then murders and dismembers.

Dark Ride (2006) A group of six friends on a road trip stop off at an amusement park attraction named 'Dark Ride', unaware that a psychopath who brutally murdered two girls, has just escaped a mental institution and is seeking refuge there.

Carny (1980) Tired of her dull job as a waitress, Donna decides to join two carnival hustlers and see what life in their field is like.

Collecting Sideshow Items

If you're interested in collecting retired sideshow items, signs or even rides - check out my favorite ebay seller (Great_American_Circus_Sideshows

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