Geeks: The Freak Show’s Bloodiest Performers

By Olivia Germann

When the word “geek” is mentioned, most people instantly imagine nerds and calculators. The term has become a label for those who are socially inept, mathematically inclined, or low on the totem pole of popularity. But a “geek” in the world of the freak show was a performer who delighted audiences with disgusting feats and tricks. While most people today associate the freak show with the exploitation of visible physical disability, the geeks were just “normal” people performing abnormal behaviors. It is because they choose to freakify themselves through their actions that they set themselves apart from the other acts of the freak show and offered audiences a chance to see people just like them reduced to “freakish” behavior. Unlike performers such as conjoined  twins or those with microcephaly, whose difference was displayed out in the open and could not be hidden, geeks looked just like their audiences, walking the fine line between normal and abnormal.

Originally from the German word “geck,” meaning fool or simpleton, the word changed in the early nineteenth century to “geek” as it’s spelled today and began to be used to describe performers that would bite the heads off of chickens (Backe). As Emma Backe points out, “The identity of the geek, therefore, has historical precedents in stigma, exclusion and nonconformity,” which explains why it was taken up to describe those with “nerdy” tendencies or poor social skills later on as the freak show died out.  

According to Doc Fred Bloodgood, a longtime worker in the circus and freak show business and one of the first implementers of the geek show,  in the early nineteenth century, geek was “…a term used around circuses and carnivals for a wild man or woman” (McNamara). The term was popularized by the best-selling novel Nightmare Alley by William Lindsey Gresham (1946) who used it to describe a wildman performer. Doc Bloodgood’s geeks performed in a pit of snakes, cavorting among the creatures and biting their heads off. They often involved the audience by blurring the line between safety and proximity. In this early geek show, the emphasis was placed on striking fear into the audience (McNamara).

A typical geek show in the mid nineteenth century would have a person on stage biting the head off of an animal and drinking its blood. Often dragged out, the act of biting off the head was the pinnacle of the performance, leaving the audience with a scene of bloodshed and death (McNamara). Men were commonly geeks, but female geeks were prized because the image of a woman partaking in such a violent act was almost unheard of. The entertainment people got in watching an “ordinary” person engage in such an activity was immense, and geek shows became a common feature of the freak show. Geek shows brought up a very valid and real fear, that any normal person (including those in the audience) could in fact become a freak. When looking at exhibits featuring people with microcephaly (known as pinheads) or those with hypertrichosis (commonly referred to as werewolf syndrome), audience members could feel comforted, knowing that they could not catch or develop such conditions. But when confronted with a geek, a person with nothing special about them save for their performance, the comfort is lost; the audience is forced to look into eyes that could very well be theirs on the freak show stage.

As the geek show grew in popularity, circuses and freak shows turned to chickens as they were relatively inexpensive and easy to acquire, as were geeks themselves. But, while we have very detailed records of freak show performers and a fascination with their lives, the same has not extended to the geeks. Unlike the “freaks” with their visible differences or ususual talents, geeks could be replaced easily. Geeks also were exposed to terrible conditions due to their work, a common complaint being broken teeth or jaws, or sickness from dealing with animals in such a close space. They also were typically paid the lowest wages since unlike the “real freaks,” geeks could be replaced at a moment’s notice. Many geeks did not actually earn a wage and instead received alcohol to feed their addictions. This was a money-saving opportunity for freak show directors and allowed them to control the performers through the amount of alcohol they were allotted. By using their addiction as a leash to keep them close to the show, the freak show gained cheap, dedicated workers who were willing to stay through horrible and demeaning treatment.

While the geek is not as prevalent in pop culture today as their freak show companions, there are still some vestiges left in our culture. The best-selling novel Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, featuring Crystal Lil as a geek, as well as the character Meep the Geek from American Horror Story on FX  offer two modern interpretations of geeks.  These two characters show just how awful and demanding the work of a geek is, with both of their stories ending rather tragically, illustrating the idea that for geeks there are no happy endings. Crystal Lil, a female Geek, may have enjoyed fame at the height of her geek career but in the end she loses most of her family as well as her sight. Meep meets a similarly dismal fate, where he is wrongfully arrested for a murder and then killed in his jail cell. These geeks’ stories, though only a modern interpretation, give a fairly accurate representation of the way in which geeks were often the scapegoats of the freak show and, in a sense, were being punished for their self-freakification. The gore category of horror films also often depicts acts that could be linked to geek performance as well. The allure of the geek is still prevalent in our culture because those who choose to freakify themselves not only pique our curiosity but show us how thin the line between normalcy and freakishness can be.


Works Cited

Backe, Emma. “Freaks & Geeks: A Cultural History of the Term “Geek”.”The Geek              Anthropologist. 17 Oct. 2014. Web.

McNamara, Brooks. “Talking.” The Drama Review 31.2 (1987): 39-56. Print.

Writing about People with Disabilities: Teaching or Displaying?

By Sarah Keck

In freak shows, people with physical differences–such as conjoined twins, those with fewer limbs than the norm, and those who can perform unusual actions–are displayed for the public to gawk and stare at. Because their differences from the “normal” concept of the human are emphasized, they are made to seem inhuman to spectators. Displaying human difference in this way is clearly a problem. However, can this sort of dehumanizing display be done in writing, even though the only things writing presents to be stared at are literally written words on a piece of paper? Sure. Here’s why:

A few definitions of the verb “display,” according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, are “to put or spread before the view,” “to make evident,” and “to exhibit ostentatiously.” When writing about people with disabilities, writers are not literally displaying them for people to view (although people are capable of envisioning what’s written down in detail), but it is still a form of exhibit. Julia Twigg describes this in her article “Social Policy and the Body” in the book Rethinking Social Policy: “An emphasis on the bodily potentially demeans disabled people, presenting them as the rejected ‘other’ of the freak show, subject to…pitying gaze of the dominant society” (135). This emphasis on a person’s bodily “abnormality” can occur physically or in writing.

Twigg presents an example from her own research, in which she decided that a description would amount to a demeaning display. She was writing about a disabled woman whose caretakers did not arrive at her house at the right time. In the midst of writing that the woman wouldn’t just “eat, sleep and live but also excrete in the bed,” she stopped herself because that last detail would “expose and lessen” that woman (135). Readers should learn about disabilities, but their focus shouldn’t be solely on the disabled body to the point that they forget the disabled person’s humanity. Focusing on the woman’s body, in this case, could present her as animalistic because hygiene practices are one of things that we see as separating humans from animals, and, without a caretaker, this woman was denied access to these practices. Also, although excretion is normal and natural, it is considered private, and this privacy is central to human dignity.

In the play The Elephant Man, Bernard Pomerance challenges the dehumanization of disabled people in writing. Although the play is meant to be performed, the challenge comes through to a reader as well. In Scene 3, the main character, John Merrick, is put on display due to his body being disabled. Dr. Frederick Treves, the surgeon who takes in Merrick, describes Merrick’s body in his medical display:

…From the upper jaw there projected another mass of bone. It protruded from the mouth like a pink stump, turning the upper lip inside out, and making the mouth a wide, slobbering aperture…The deformities rendered the face utterly incapable of the expression of any emotion whatsoever…developed hip disease which left him permanently lame, so that he could only walk with a stick. (Pomerance 5-6)

Though this written display of Merrick focuses dominantly on his body, dehumanizing him, it is only a brief scene, and it is later criticized within the play. The majority of the play doesn’t center only on Merrick’s body. There are many scenes in which Merrick’s personhood is noted so that his body is not the focal point. A few examples would be when he cried at how Madge Kendal, a visitor, was the first woman to shake his hand (35), when he explained his purpose in building a model of St. Phillip’s church (38), and when he questions the standards Treves has regarding the display of women’s bodies in Scene 16 (55-58). Readers can learn in The Elephant Man that Merrick is more than his stage name. From being in a freak show to living in Treves’ care, Merrick goes from “freak” to “normal” in the reader’s mind. He is presented in writing as a human being, displaying qualities and actions of any human, as every person with a disability does.

In performance, the play takes this focus on his humanity further. Pomerance made it clear to focus on Merrick as a person in the play’s introduction: “Any attempt to reproduce his [Merrick’s] appearance and his speech naturalistically – if it were possible – would seem to me not only counterproductive, but, the more remarkably successful, the more distracting from the play” (V-VI). If an actor took the appearance of Merrick, the audience would only be drawn to the character’s abnormality, not to the humanity. Thus, it wouldn’t be different from a live freak show with Merrick on display. Pomerance doesn’t focus only on Merrick’s body in the script, so he doesn’t advise actors to take on the role literally in the production. But he does not ignore Merrick’s body either. He suggested using “projected slides” (VI) to give people an understanding of how Merrick appeared. Thus, once they’d gotten past their initial prejudices, the reader and viewer can come to an understanding of Merrick as a person with a disability, rather than a person in spite of his disability.

It’s not entirely possible to write about people without indirectly displaying them. The thing is, if what’s written about disabled people is meant to teach people about the feelings and experiences of those put up on display, then it’s not meant to be negative. They can be displayed in writing in ways that do not other them but instead educate readers.


Works Cited

“Display.” Merriam-Webster, 2015. Web.

Pomerance, Bernard. The Elephant Man. New York: Grove, 1979. V-VI, 5-6, 35, 38, 55-58. Print.

Twigg, Julia. “Social Policy and the Body.” Rethinking Social Policy. Ed. Gail Lewis, Sharon Gewirtz, and John Clarke. London: Open U in Association with SAGE Publications, 2000. 135. Print.