What does the old-time freak show have to teach about writing? Step right up ,
ladies and gentlemen, and let’s find out. (But don’t get sidetracked too long in that link; it’s a winner.)
Unless you’re very old, the only place you’ve ever seen a freak show is in Westerns.
Audiences would pay to stare at the outlandishly tall, short, or fat. At “Siamese” twins. Bearded ladies.
Of course, we’re more sophisticated now, and more cynical. Also more politically correct. We’ve been taught it’s not polite to stare.
We’re Hard Wired To Be Fascinated
But we’re still as fascinated by the bizarre as we’ve ever been. How else explain all those TV nature shows about pythons and grizzlies, or the novels of Stephen King?
Wikipedia rather clinically defines the freak show as “an exhibition of biological rarities.” Well yes, but it was a bit more than that.
The freak show was most popular 100 years ago, usually as part of a traveling carnival, and relieved the tedium of everyday life.
That kind of freak show has vanished.
But there are dozens of other examples. Peter the Great was so captivated by “human oddities” that he ordered malformed, still-born infants from all over Russia to be sent St. Petersburg’s Kunstkamera Museum to be exhibited as “accidents of nature.”
The original “Siamese twins” were the brothers Chang and Eng Bunker, who were born in Thailand, then called Siam. As adults they became citizens of the U.S., settled in North Carolina, and married sisters. In most respects, they lived an almost normal life.
“Freak” Not Always An Insult
Most of the time, the word “freak” is derogatory – even repugnant. But not always.
A freak storm is just one that’s unexpected. A jazz freak is somebody who’s nuts about jazz. To freak out about something is just to lose one’s cool.
What does all this have to do with writing?
Freaks – the rare, the odd, the peculiar, the bizarre, the simply weird – grab our attention because they’re out of the ordinary.
As writers, we can exploit that fascination. How?
With colorful comparisons. Inventive turns of phrase. Stories that grab and don’t let go.
By not slavishly following the rules.
By going beyond what readers are used to — sometimes way beyond.
Even by freaking them out.
The Eng brothers, who fathered 21 children, now have more than 1,500 descendants — including several sets of non-conjoined twins. In July 2011, several hundred of them gathered in Mt Airey, NC on the 200th anniversary of the original “Siamese” twins’ birth.
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