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Matt Von Pinnon, Published July 14 2012

Von Pinnon: Did science or YouTube kill the fair freak show?

I’m a dad, so I ended up at the Red River Valley Fair last week.

The once-faltering fair seems to be on the upswing in recent years. This year, the weather was great, the admission price was reasonable (even if rides and food are still a tad pricey) and the midway seemed busy and lively the two evenings I was there.

But as I chaperoned my kids around the grounds this year, it dawned on me that they are no longer exposed to the freak shows that were always part of the fair when I was a kid.

No Bearded Lady. No World’s Smallest Horse. No Two-headed Calf. No Snake Man (HE HAS THE HEAD OF A MAN AND THE BODY OF A SNAKE. YOU WON’T BELIEVE YOUR EYES!)

Even when I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s, sideshows such as these were probably on the downswing, but we didn’t have the historical perspective to know it.

I can distinctly remember the little trailers with speakers barking out the repeated refrain: STEP RIGHT UP AND SEE THE WORLD’S SMALLEST HORSE! HE’S NO BIGGER THAN YOUR KNEE!

Of course, we always wanted to step up and see it, but you couldn’t help but feel sort of ripped off as you watched the little horse placidly eating hay. Sure it was small, but you thought it would be much smaller.

I asked a few friends why they thought freak shows had largely gone by the wayside at traveling fairs and circuses.

One thought YouTube was to blame. He said very few things shock people anymore because the rarities and curiosities of the world are at our fingertips. Videos or images of strange people or animals go viral in an instant these days and end up on CNN before any promoter can organize to make a buck.

Another friend theorized that our society’s attitudes toward deformities and oddities have evolved to where we seek reasonable answers to genetic differences and sometimes even celebrate them. She thought better science killed sideshows.

Of course, there’s no doubt societal views have changed a lot since freak shows were most popular in the 1800s to mid-1900s.

Despite the fact that some people with differences or disabilities exploited those differences to make a decent living when they otherwise could not, most people today see the exploitation of such people or animals as cruel and needless, which is good.

People and animals have always been curious about those among them who are different or have unexplained conditions. In some ways, it forces us to keep asking questions and to appreciate that differences make our world a far more interesting place.

That said, another friend had perhaps the best answer for why freak shows have gone by the wayside:

“I was at the fair the other night, too,” he said. “The freaks are everywhere. I saw more Tattooed Women and Human Pincushions walking around than I ever paid to see as a kid!”


Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579.