“Hurry, hurry, step right up, if you got the dime we got the show!” The circus marketing used this catching formula and the best bit were the freaks, those people afflicted with malformations and rare diseases who attracted a big public especially in England and the Usa between XIX and XX century. The first who came up with this idea was Phineas Taylor Barnum, of the namesake circus which shut down at the beginning of 2017. This kind of treatment is now considered inhuman and shameful, but it wasn’t the worse in history.
Ancient civilizations, even advanced such as Greeks and Romans, didn’t look favorably the birth of a kid with disabilities or deformities. Those literally “monsters”, from the latin “monstrum” (=divine sign) were a warning from gods, maybe some fault to expiate. Estrangement and killing were really common, in the utilitarian logic of the survival of the fittest. Also a philosopher like Seneca endorsed this practise, “it’s good sense, not rage”. Only during the III century a.D. The emperor Severo Alessandro forbid the exposure, comparing it to murder.
The abandonment on the Taygetus mountain by the Spartans is probably just a myth, infact only adult bones were found there, assumed criminals. That doesn’t change the substance, Plato didn’t consider deformed people in his government of philosophers. Aristotle wanted a law that allowed parents not to raise disabled children. But those ideas weren’t just european, in India the sacred river Gange was the theatre of abandonment as well.
Monotheism was ambiguous with deformities. The Old Testament gave no hope: no malformed had the chance to get close to God, as deformities were considered a divine warning. Then came Christianity. The message of Jesus was inclusive, according to the Scriptures he was among crippled, leprosy, blind and all the outcasts of society. Charity and pity were introduced.
But we know that the Church never really followed christianity, meant as Jesus doctrine. So the pope Gregrorio Magno, in the VI century, said that “a healthy soul would never find place in a sick house”, that stands for body. Superstitions blamed the woman anyway. If the newborn was a “freak”, was because of her. She probably had a physical relationship with a demon, or Satan himself, like it was Rosemary’s baby. She could had death penalty, while the product of sin was exposed to public pillory.
Still in the XV century european rivers saw many “ship of fools”, boats packed with mentally ill people left to their own. It probably was a main issue, if flemish painters changed their subjective search from classic beauty, the greek harmony and proportions, to deformity. Hieronymus Bosch is the author of the Ship of fools, in 1494, Pieter Bruegel painted The cripples, 1568, just to make a couple of examples. Is a time of medical and anatomical studies, like The anatomy lesson of dr. Tulp by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. But if disabilities get more scientific dignity, on the other hand courts were filled of midgets, for the amusement of kings and nobles.
During the Enlightment medicine and chemistry had a significant development. But it’s also the time when the first, exclusive freak shows start. The siamese twins Lazzaro and Giovanbattista Colloredo or the talented musician and magician Matthias Buchinger, born without arms and legs, were requested by royal families all over Europe.
These performances became popular in the XIX century thanks to Barnum, as anticipated. Freak shows had not only rare diseases, but also obese, skinny, tattoed or pierced people. The audience was attracted by Joseph “John” Merrick, better known as the “Elephant Man” – afflicted with Proteus syndrome and not with Elephantiasis or tumors, as initially thought. Elephant Man by David Linch is not the only movie that narrates this kind of stories. In 1932 Tod Browning directed Freaks, with an authentic cast made of circus freaks. The scene of the initiation of the beautiful Cleopatra (“We accept her one of us, we accept her one of us, gooble gobble, gooble gobble”) goes straight in the History of Cinema.
Excluding the nazi parenthesis, with the heinous experiments perpetrated by dr. Mengele and friends on mentally and physically ill and on twins, in the contemporary times we replaced the freak shows… with other freak shows. Sure, now is nothing like a human zoo, this tv shows aim to talk about medical conditions and increase awareness about the challanges for a “normal” integration in everyday life. But the reactions of the audience is still the same of 100 or 200 years ago, a mix of morbid curiosity, shock, pity, empathy and the relief for being just average and, in the end, not being so miserable.
Eventually, in 5 minutes is all forgotten.