07 November 2014

Freak Show by Robert Bogdan

Robert Bogdan is a Professor of Cultural Foundations of Education and Sociology and the Director of the Social Science Doctoral Program for the Center on Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies at Syracuse University. His book, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, looks at the history and practice of the freak show through a social lens.

He directly states his thesis early in the book: "Our reaction to freaks is not a function of some deep-seated fear or some "energy" that they give off; it is, rather the result of our socialization, and of the way our social institutions managed these people's identities. Freak shows are not about isolated individuals...they are about organizations and patterned relationships between them and us. Freak is not a quality that belongs to the person on display. It is something that we created: a perspective, a set of practices - a social construction."

Focusing on the heydey of Freak Shows, 1840-1940, Bogdan covers the history of the presentation of freaks in conjunction with the circus, dime museums, carnivals, world fairs, the amusement industry in general. What interested me most about the history was the transition of freaks from impressive curiosities to diseased dangers to society. Freak shows drew large crowds, were extremely popular attractions, and in many cases, "freaks" settled down into "normal" communities both at retirement and when on break from the show. It wasn't until the early 1900s when doctors claimed freaks as the property of science that people started to find freaks pitiful. Science both demystified their abnormalities and changed their uniqueness into diseases.

True to the thesis, Bogdan doesn't focus on individual freaks, he discusses their modes of presentation. Constructing a "freak" was all about backstory and presentation. People were displayed in either the exotic or aggrandized mode. Those presented in the exotic mode were passed off as a strange wonder from a remote part of the world. Some of these performers didn't even have a unique physiology; they were just from a different country - or merely presented as being from a different country.

In the aggrandized mode, the performer is presented as a pinnacle of society, someone who is truly talented because of or in spite of his/her difference. And these people certainly had an interesting life. Many of them hobnobbed with the American elite and European royalty.

Of course, not every performer had an actual abnormality. We have the gaffs - people faking difference - and self-made freaks and novelty acts - those who learned a skill like sword swallowing or people who covered their bodies in tattoos.  Even those performers with real abnormalities, however, were deceiving the audience in some way. I could go on and on about this. It was fascinating, both to learn the constructed modes of presentation and to learn about the people who performed. Speaking of learning....

The book is not structured chronologically, so information is repeated chapter to chapter, the history, the people, and the theory. Rather than being annoyingly redundant, this repetition actually enhanced the reading experience for me. I feel like I learned more this way.

I will leave you with another restatement of his thesis because I think it is not only an important part of the book, but a very true, very important statement: "How we view people who are different has less to do with what they are physiologically than with who we are culturally."

This book counts towards my reading for Nonfiction November.


  1. The topic sounds interesting but I wonder if it's not too academic for me.

    1. It actually wasn't bad as far as that goes. Now my second book on freak shows is remarkably academic.

  2. It does seem academic, but how can anyone not be a little fascinated with this? Have you watched this season's American Horror Story? Crazy stuff!

    1. I'm two or three episodes behind but woah.

  3. I sometimes find it frustrating when books aren't ordered chronologically, especially if this means they feel disorganized or confusing, but I've also enjoyed books like this which are organized thematically and I agree that it can be nice to see information repeated. I like to learn from the nonfiction I read and I feel like I sometimes retain more with some repetition :) Great review!

  4. I love that final quote. It speaks volumes.


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