Wit and wisdom for wordsmiths

What Writers Can Learn From Freak Shows

FreakShowPrincess What Writers Can Learn From Freak Shows

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?

Just this.

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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6 Responses to What Writers Can Learn From Freak Shows

  1. Jean Gogolin says:

    Hi Daniela,

    This has turned into a much more interesting discussion than I anticipated when I wrote the post! I think the issue is not only what the writer can do, but what the reader expects him/her to do.

    If I pick up something by Stephen King, for instance, I know it will probably scared the bejesus out of me, because that’s what he knows how to do and I’m in the mood for that kind of escapism – even if parts of it might be ghoulish. It’s a kind of contract between writer and reader.

    If I bought one of is novels and it turned out to be science fiction, then I’d feel manipulated. I don’t think we have any disagreement here, but your thoughts have piqued more of mine! Thanks.
    Jean Gogolin recently posted..Climate Change a Hoax? “Sell Crazy Someplace Else”

  2. Hey Jean! Notice I said “so called enlightenment” because I agree with you, human nature has not changed, only the venues of its expression. And no need to apologize, you didn’t manipulate me with this article. I meant to say that when writers write with the intent to ignite that fascinated revulsion for its own sake, I feel manipulated. It’s another variant of the tear-jerker, where the writer employs certain tropes just to turn on the readers’ waterworks. I guess my question is, to what end? If only to push the biological button because the writer can, then I feel manipulated. In the service of something more nutritious for me the reader, maybe not. Thanks for this thought provoking post!
    shrinkunwrapped recently posted..When You’re Tired, Rest.

  3. Jean Gogolin says:

    I’m sorry you felt manipulated. Two comments, though. I wonder how “enlightened” we’ve really become. It wasn’t that long ago that parents in the deep South took their children to watch hangings. We still watch gory movies.

    I don’t recommend that writers should exploit that kind of fascination — and perhaps “exploit” was not the right word. But we can take advantage of our human fascination with the highly unusual. Even the freaky.
    Jean Gogolin recently posted..Climate Change a Hoax? “Sell Crazy Someplace Else”

  4. Hi Jean! Controversial post! It’s true we’re wired to be fascinated by the wierd. But I’m guessing the fascination with freak shows aroused an unseemly mix of revulsion and a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I desire to run run run. Sort of like public hangings in England back in the day. Both outlawed in our age of so called enlightenment. Ha. As a writer, I want to grab the reader’s attention, but am unwilling to go that far. And as a reader, I feel manipulated by such tactics.
    shrinkunwrapped recently posted..When You’re Tired, Rest.

  5. Jean Gogolin says:

    Thanks, Sue! I guess we shouldn’t feel so guilty about our fascination with all things weird, hm?

  6. Sue Horner says:

    What a freakishly good post! :)
    You are so right, we are “hard-wired” to be fascinated, and excellent point that as writers, we can talk to that side of people.

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