In class on Wednesday, we got into a discussion of Victorian “freakery” after looking at a Lady Clementina Hawarden of one of the Hawarden daughters leaning against a mirror in a circus-like costume. The image evoked contemporary images of conjoined twins who were exhibited as side show attractions, such as Millie-Christine, “The Two-Headed Nightingale,” and the Blazek or “Bohemian” twins.
We usually associate freak shows with a less-enlightened era, before the development of modern ethics – possibly ending around the time of Tod Browning’s Freaks, by which time the concept of freak shows had become unpleasant enough for horror movie fodder. However, freak shows ended not so much because people’s interest in freaks waned but because the popularity of film eclipsed that of circuses and vaudeville (which is why many of Browning’s “freaks” saw his film as their big break into the new medium). Twenty-first-century audiences are as fascinated with deformity as were the Victorians, which current television shows such as Extraordinary People, BodyShock, Mystery Diagnosis, and Medical Mysteries demonstrate.
The most obvious mirroring of the nineteenth-century fascination with conjoined twins (especially young female pairs) is the media frenzy surrounding Abby and Brittany Hensel, a pair of conjoined twins who might have done well in vaudeville if they had been born a century or so earlier. Instead, they gained fame through the morning news and talk show circuit and starred in a 2013 BBC reality miniseries about their post-college adventures.
One could argue that the perennial fascination with oddity inspires not only quasi-scientific shows on Discovery Health but the majority of reality television. It’s been said that the reason freak shows were so popular is that it feels good to feel better than someone else. Who could say that isn’t part of the attraction of blockbuster reality series like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and The Jersey Shore?