Welcome to the Freakshow!
Deep down, I think we all have an attraction to the strange and unusual. Some people don’t want to admit it and others will just as soon look away in disgust or horror, but in actuality, for a number of reasons, those that we regard as different or as strange and unusual hold a fascination for us. Despite our best efforts, it’s still difficult not to stare awkwardly at those who live beyond the “norm” of society, those that don’t match our cultural and social expectations, or those who merely look different from us. Often we resort to insulting terms such as “weirdos”, “creeps”, or “freaks” to describe these people whom we fail to understand. But perhaps the greatest reason that we have this love/hate relationship with them is because they remind us of ourselves.
Perhaps there is no greater example within contemporary culture of our dualistic reaction to the social outsider than the 1932 Tod Browning horror-melodrama Freaks. The film, which has become beloved by some and reviled by others, is considered one of the first true cult classics and even today it still manages to pack a punch. The story is a deceptively simple tale about the companionship of a small group of sideshow performers and what happens when their inner circle is threatened by “normal” folk – the other great outsider. One of the aspects of the film that created such an outrage and controversy when it was initially released was the fact that unlike almost any other film of its day, director Browning chose to use real life human anomalies to portray the characters of the story.
Today, this makes the film an interesting contradiction in that it is at once both an exploitation film and an empathetic look at the lives of those who are rejected by the mainstream culture. However, ironically the film which served as a cautionary tale about judging one based upon appearances was almost unanimously panned by critics who had no desire to see “living monstrosities projected on the screen“. During later years as viewers re-examined this flawed masterpiece of vintage shock cinema, they were struck by the seeming contradiction of a film that exploits the subjects that it attempts to advocate. In spite of this controversy and indeed partially because of it, the film has endured for 80 years now and is regarded as a classic of horror cinema.
Yet the real stories of the sideshow freaks and the characters that populated the world of the carnevale spectacular are perhaps just as unbelievable and shocking as those of their fictional counterparts in Browning’s Freaks. These “freaks” and others have been resurrected via the skilled hand of modern symbolist painter Gail Potocki in a series of paintings that must be seen to be believed. So, if you dare read on, and you must, I shall share with you a glimpse into a world of grotesqueries, oddities, and anomalies that once scandalized the general public and left the faces of outsiders forever emblazoned in the minds of the world.
As one might imagine, I have always been a bit obsessed with the seedy underworld of the circus and sideshow spectacles. I am not alone in this regard. Many filmmakers, artists, musicians, and writers have used the world of vaudeville, cabarets, and carnivals to find inspiration. Amongst these creative geniuses are Tod Browning, Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, Tim Burton, Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean, Amanda Palmer, and of course, Gail Potocki. I was curious as to whether the allure that this kind of performance and lifestyle had for me was also the same as felt by Gail. We discussed the matter at length and found certain similar themes, and emotional as well as social resonances, that seemed to be common.
Gail was a single child and grew up with her mother in Detroit. Describing herself as “introverted” and “creative“, Gail felt a kinship to so-called outsiders as her love of nature and her strong independent streak seemed at odds with the industrial city and the relatively conservative values of many of the inhabitants there. Developing a reputation amongst her family and peers as “the black sheep” or “the artsy one“, Gail had interests and enthusiasms which also set her apart from those around her. “I always had a bit of a morbid curiosity about things and was attracted to the odd and unusual,” she says.
Her series of paintings created in 2009, aptly titled Freaks, is a serious and at times disarming look at the different individuals who in the past plied their trade in the world of circus sideshows. Like all of her works, these paintings are created in her trademark Symbolist style and possess a powerful level of humanism and emotion. However, they also stand out from the paintings she has created in the past as each of the subjects in these works has been deceased for quite some time. Using photographs, poster illustrations, and film footage for research, Gail set out to capture the essence of each figure. This was a particular challenge as most of the photographs are old, grainy, damaged, and naturally in black and white. Every detail from skin tone to eye color had to feel authentic, so what the photographs failed to offer in detail had to be compensated for, thus Gail was given the unique opportunity to embellish upon or to imbue some of her own ideas into the paintings. The result is an extraordinary example of how a masterful artist can evoke personality and intimate characteristics in their work.
“I had to project my own feelings that I experienced while I look at them,” Gail said of the diverse group of characters. “Pip (Jenny Lee Snow) was a microcephalic with the IQ of an infant, but when I looked at her she had this proud and intelligent expression on her face. I wanted to show her dressed in a romantic vintage costume that made her look regal and feminine. I added some fraying to the fabric to symbolize her true fragility.“
“Flip (Elvira Snow) had such an odd profile that I really wanted to capture. I immediately thought of the painting Whistler did of his mother and used this as my inspiration. Of course, I added the doll in her hand, the chalk scrawling on the wall, and the burning circus tent in the distance. It was fun for me to create this possible scenario that she had caused some chaos back in the circus and was now contemplating the deed.“
In some of the other paintings in the series, Gail took artistic license with the roles of the performers in the circus and created poetic visual motifs acknowledging their unusual appearance or traits.
“Annie Jones, the bearded lady, was a bit of a pun. She’s holding bearded irises and is surrounded by hairless cats. ‘Jo-Jo‘ seemed so otherworldly yet classical in his ornate jacket. I looked to Albrecht Dürer‘s self-portrait for this one and added the toy dog on wheels because there was a child-like look to ‘Jo-Jo’. I also added the night sky with the ‘dog star’.“
Surprisingly, Gail was one of the few children who, growing up, did not want to to run away and join the circus and she rarely went. However, she did have vivid memories of going to the Michigan State Fairgrounds during the fair season and seeing sideshow attractions. “When I was a kid, there were still freak shows with barkers enticing spectators to come inside for a view,” she recalls. “Many of them were fakes, of course, but at that age it still made an impact.”
During the first thirty years of the twentieth century, especially in America, circuses and carnivals were very popular forms of escapist entertainment. There have been attempts by numerous cultural critics and historians to identify exactly why these kinds of attractions and performances were so prolific during this period. Interestingly, it is also during this same time that horror movies, especially in the twenties and thirties, began to rise to prominence as a distinct film genre.
One author and cultural historian, David J. Skal (who wrote the biography Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning), has suggested that at the time popular culture was fascinated with “the others” and the “outsider“. In particular, he theorized that one of the reasons that so many people were morbidly obsessed with physical deformities and outsiders was due to the advances in medical science which allowed for many wounded and disfigured war veterans to survive, particularly those who saw the trench warfare of WWI. So, in a way, the voyeuristic appeal to sideshows could be explained as a dualistic impulse triggered in part by guilt over being normal as well as a kind of perverse satisfaction in seeing the afflictions of others. Yet, the fascination goes much deeper than that. Many of the films of director Tod Browning dealt with misanthropic antiheroes who suffered from some physical malady, often to be rivaled by an even greater psychological one, which prevented them from experiencing love on a physical level. These films were often one-part romantic tragedy and two-parts revenge melodrama. Perhaps, at its core, we crave this kind of entertainment because we identify with the feeling of being rejected. Maybe we even wish to be “freaks”; to be simultaneously individuals and part of a community, to be unique and still accepted, to live in the comfort of routine and still possess spontaneity. These are the things that circus sideshows provide.
There certainly was a complicated dichotomy since many of the performers in the circus couldn’t find work elsewhere in so-called respectable bourgeois society, yet almost by a cruel ironic twist, many members of that same respectable bourgeois society protested the circus sideshows because they felt that they were exploitative and grotesque. Hence, the freaks really had nowhere else to go in terms of employment or finding acceptance. For many, the circus was not only their home and their job, but also their shelter from the “normal world” that ostracized them. What’s more, when looking at these performers, one can’t help but feel an affinity for them and to look beyond their superficial differences to see the true beauty within. After all, what is normal? What is beautiful? I think Gail’s painting of the Siamese twins says it all.
In the final view, Gail’s Freaks paintings are much like their subjects. Individually, they are intriguing and full of complexity, beauty, and each has a story to tell. Collectively, they form a spectacle that is unforgettable.