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.
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.