The present paper attempts to trace a trajectory from the classic status of the female freak in the Victorian Age (exemplified by P.T. Barnum’s spectacular sideshows) up to a number of twentieth-century literary examples of female freakery (in this case with examples from some of Leonora Carrington’s and Angela Carter’s works). In these late(r) examples the female freak is rehabilitated, but at the same time the existential costs of freakery are emphasized. In Katherine Dunn’s hilarious and outrageous Geek Love (1989) this focus on existential costs is foregrounded even further. The winged woman (Fevvers) in Carter’s Nights at the Circus obviously represents a utopian version of female freakery, whereas Wanda the Worm Woman in The Residents’ album Freak Show (1991) rather points in the direction of Kristevan abjection (the underbelly of the carnivalesque-grotesque).

1. Introduction

In Mary Russo’s classic study The Female Grotesque. Risk, Excess and Modernity(1994) Mikhail Bakhtin’s well-known reflections on the carnivalesque-grotesque and popular culture are reinterpreted in the light of some of the more recent insights of feminist theory, and in Russo’s perspective there is also a decisive focus on the way(s) in which female abnormality and/or freakery are foregrounded in Western fiction and film (for example in George du Maurier’sTrilby,1894, Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus,1984, and David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers,1988) (Russo, 1995, 107-82, 205-21). What I shall attempt to do in the present paper is trace a trajectory from the classic status of the female freak (and her male and other counterparts) in the Victorian Age (for example in P.T. Barnum’s spectacular sideshows) – where the exotic ‘otherness’ of the freak is clearly what primarily fascinates the audiences – up to a number of twentieth-century literary examples of female freakery (for example in Leonora Carrington’s and Angela Carter’s works). In these late(r) examples it may be said that the female freak is rehabilitated, and the existential costs of freakery are simultaneously emphasized – such as it is, incidentally, also the case in Katherine Dunn’s hilarious and outrageous Geek Love (1989) or in the musical version of freakery presented to the public in Freak Show (1991) by the Californian avantgarde rock band The Residents. The winged woman (Fevvers) in Nights at the Circus obviously represents a utopian version of womanhood as well as a utopian version of (Bakhtinian) laughter, whereas Wanda the Worm Woman in Freak Show rather points in the direction of Kristevan abjection (the underbelly of the carnivalesque-grotesque).

In nineteenth-century America (as well as Western Europe) freaks were regularly exhibited in circuses, sideshows, fairs, or even in museums – and the notion of freakery in this context tended to cover a wide variety of human or would-be human beings. Both disabled persons of different kinds, people belonging to other (non-white) races, and purely imaginary beings, in other words composite or hybrid creatures apparently made up by ingenious confidence men or tricksters (seemingly sheer hoaxes) belonged to this comprehensive category:

The century-long heyday of American freak shows represented a dramatic resurgence of the tradition of publicly displaying and reading extraordinary bodies [but later] the wondrous monsters of antiquity, who became the fascinating freaks of the nineteenth century,transformed into the disabled people of the later twentieth century. The extraordinary body moved from portent to pathology. Today the notion of a freak show that displays the bodies of disabled people for profit and public entertainment is both repugnant and anachronistic, rejected but nevertheless recent and compelling in memory.’ (Garland Thomson, 1997, 58)

Whereas the monsters of earlier ages were frequently linked up with the supernatural sphere, nineteenth-century freaks were in most cases portrayed as more or less ‘natural’ – however exceptional or anomalous – beings; but after 1940 disabled bodies became more and more an exclusive medical concern, and the element of showmanship was gradually toned down: in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) the showman (played by Freddie Jones) thus turns out to be a downright villain, and the doctor (played by Anthony Hopkins) is certainly the good guy [1].

2. Uncrowning Victorian Femininity – P.T. Barnum’s Female Freaks

According to Rosemarie Garland Thomson, a seriously scarred native Brazilian woman called Tono Maria was exhibited in London in 1822 as ‘the Venus of South America’, and a contemporary journalist portrayed this woman with her extraordinary body in highly negative terms as both ‘lazy’ and ‘nasty’, arguing on the basis of his disgust that he had learned an important lesson, for ‘having previously failed to fully appreciate English women, he would forever after ‘pay the homage due to the loveliest works of creation, enhanced in value by so wonderful a contrast [2]’’ (Garland Thomson, 1997, 55). The ‘Angel in the House’ (in Coventry Patmore’s phrase) thus cannot be fully appreciated until the opposite pole is explicitly invoked(in this case represented by a sexual freak and a femme fatale, in other words ‘the Venus of South America’).

P.T. Barnum, the famous American showman, wrote several autobiographies, where he re-narrated the ups and downs of his illustrious career, and according to Eric Fretz:

[t]he first hundred pages [of Barnum’s The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself, 1855] read like the tale of a Yankee trickster and work to establish Barnum as a born jokester who, as ‘The Prince of Humbugs’‘ and ‘The Prince of Showman’ (sic) [in other words The prince of Showmen], is merely acting out his native talents.The apparent lack of narrative direction and the homely metaphors and anecdotes give Life its native charm. Yet the linear progression of a self that moves from a small-town wag to a big-shot showman who occupies and manipulates the public mind of the nineteenth-century becomes the strongest selling point of this most American of books.'(Fretz, 1996: 98/9, author’s italics)

Barnum’s showmanship as an arch-manipulator of his audience(s) is thus intimately related to his prototypical from-rags-to-riches career.

One of Barnum’s earliest hoaxes was his exhibition of the allegedly 161-year-old nurse of George Washington (a slave named Joice Heath) in 1835. However, when Joice Heath died in 1836, an autopsy was carried out, and:

[a]t the end of the autopsy, the surgeon announced there had surely been some mistake about Joice Heath’s age – instead of being 161, she was, in his opinion, no more than 80. (Kunhardt, Jr. et al, 1995, 23)

Another hoax perpetrated by Barnum was the so-called ‘Feejee Mermaid’, who was in reality a (stuffed) creature with the head of a baboon, the head, shoulders, arms, and breasts of a female orangoutang, and the body of a fish; nevertheless it was presented in the newspapers with ‘woodcuts of bare-breasted, fishtailed beauties’ (Kunhardt, Jr. et al, 1995, 40). Barnum’s ‘mysterious ‘lady fish’’ was in due course exhibited in Barnum’s American Museum in New York (a museum he had bought in 1841), and it also toured the country – even if contemporary scientists no longer believed in mermaids. However, controversies concerning the genuineness of Barnum’s artefacts or other ‘curiosities’ usually turned out to be profitable in the long run: ‘Barnum had realized the value of disagreement when he spread rumors that Joice Heath [George Washington’s nurse] was an automaton. He acted on it again when he arranged for someone to prosecute him for imposture on the grounds that the American Museum’s bearded lady was a man. With great unwillingness, or so it seemed, Barnum arranged for a medical examination, and crowds poured in for a closer look.This time his triumph was total, as he had both truth and profits on his side’ (Harris, 1973: 67).

Other female freaks adopted by Barnum for showbusiness purposes were Lavinia Warren Bump (‘the [so-called] Queen of Beauty’, only 32 inches tall), who married Barnum’s all-time greatest success as a showman, the ultra-small ‘General’ Tom Thumb (a dwarf going overseas to Europe with Barnum in the 1840’s), the Nova Scotia giantess Anna Swan, a ‘Leopard Child’, and Millie-Christine, the so-called ‘Two-Headed Girl’ (actually joined at the buttocks with part of their spine in common) (Kunhardt, Jr. et al, 1995, 164-75, 188, 209).

Barnum’s political position with regard to his showmanship – and his entrepreneurial spirit – also reflect what Edward W. Said has demonstrated clearly in his classic studyOrientalism (1978), whereby Western stereotypes, vis-à-vis the Middle East and Asia in general, loom large everywhere in the Western imagination. Furthermore, it is argued by Said:

that European [and by implication also American] culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self.’ (Said, 1995: 3)

This is obviously the case when Barnum attempts to procure his so-called ‘Circassian’ beauties (from the Caucasus region) for his museum – where he is even willing to let his representative (a man named Greenwood) frequent Turkish slave markets in order to succeed in his enterprise. When Barnum lets Greenwood take such a Circassian Beauty to America, it may be argued that the seraglio of the Turkish tyrant (the dangerous male ‘Oriental’) is replaced by the ‘golden cage’ of American womanhood. According to contemporary beliefs precisely the Caucasian region is regarded as the place of origin of all white people, and the ‘purity’ of the Circassian Beauty therefore remains an ideal embodiment of white womanhood as such. However this may be, the ‘exotic’ undertow of Circassian femininity nevertheless still seems to be present somewhere in the wings.

3. Two Feminist Versions of Freakery – Leonora Carrington and Angela Carter

After the Barnum era (he died in 1891) the popularity of sideshows (and in the U.S. similarly the public interest in the so-called dime museums) seemed gradually to decline. However, according to Andrea Stulman Dennett:

[l]ive freak shows long remained part of the American carnival and circus traditions. Most legitimate non-circus-related sideshows, however, were associated with the ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not!’ Tour created by Robert Ripley in 1933 for the Chicago World’s Fair. Following the fair, Ripley traveled with a company of twenty-five living oddities and some three hundred inanimate objects. (Dennett, 1996: 319)

A relatively late example of the cult of freakery can be found in Tod Browning’s famous movie Freaks (1932), but at the same time we notice that the film (with its cast of real freaks) was banned by MGM shortly after its release, apparently mainly due to the many bad reviews it provoked in the press and due to the mixed responses of the general public (quite a few theatre owners in rural areas refused to show the film). It took thirty years before the film re-surfaced in the cinemas, but by now it has become a cult classic. Anyway, the love-triangles of the film – where erotic relationships between freaks and so-called normal adults are taken up – draw a profoundly disturbing picture of the human condition: the midget (Hans), who falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist(Cleopatra), is certainly punished for his hubris (or whatever it is); but at the same time the femme fatale of the movie (Cleo) – who tries to poison Hans – is literally turned into a super-freak (a chicken-woman of sorts) by Hans’s fellow freaks in the climactic nocturnal chase scene near the end of the film.

It is interesting to notice that there is a direct link between Tod Browning’s Freaks and the surrealists, for Buñuel himself was inspired by the wedding scene in Browning’s film and imitates it in a similar episode in his own Viridiana (1961). However this may be, Leonora Carrington (born in 1917) – who in her early life was affiliated with the (French) surrealists and the lover and companion of Max Ernst – also focuses on freakery in quite a few of her works (both in her paintings and in her literary output). In ‘As They Rode Along the Edge’ (written between 1937 and 1940 in French) the heroine,Virginia Fur:

had a mane of hair yards long and enormous hands with dirty nails’, and at the same time she rode ‘a wheel, [and] she took the worst roads, between precipices, across trees. Someone who has never travelled on a wheel would think it difficult, but she was used to it’ (Carrington, 1988, 3).

Virginia Fur is followed everywhere by one hundred cats, and it is stated explicitly that ‘one couldn’t really be altogether sure she was a human being. Her smell alone threw doubt on it – a mixture of spices and game, the stables, fur and grasses’ (Carrington, 1988, 3).Thus her identity is placed somewhere between the human world and the animal kingdom, and this (fairly transgressive) hybridity is also characteristic of ‘classic’ freaks such as we come across them in sideshows or Barnum’s American Museum (cp. the forementioned ‘Leopard Child’). When Virginia Fur mates with a beautiful wild boar (Igname), the cats take active part in their ‘dance of ecstasy. The cats caterwauled and stuck their claws into one another’s necks, then threw themselves in a mass onto Igname and Virginia, who disappeared under a mountain of cats where they made love’ (Carrington, 1988, 9). Obviously, the erotic impulses are thus re-configured quite freely under the auspices of a kind of limitless animality.

When Igname is killed by hunters – as a matter of fact, hunters working on behalf of a pious churchman, Saint Alexander – Virginia Fur takes it upon her to carry out a drastic revenge expedition, ending up with the universal cry: ‘Kill him!’, aimed at the so-called saint (Carrington, 1988, 15). Thus the classic Bakhtinian opposition between ‘official’ (in this case ecclesiastical) culture on the one hand and the anarchic forces of popular culture on the other is certainly present in ‘As They Rode Along the Edge’. And just as it is the case in Buñuel’s films – from Buñuel’s and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) andL’Age d’Or (1930) to the late French films of the Spanish director – ecclesiastical culture as such is definitely ‘uncrowned’ (in Bakhtin’s sense) in Leonora Carrington’s works (this is also the case in the much later novel The Hearing Trumpet, published in English in 1977, but probably written in Mexico at the beginning of the 1950’s, a novel where the classic quest for the Holy Grail is reinterpreted in purely matriarchal terms).

In ‘As They Rode Along the Edge’ the saint’s ‘underwear of reinforced concrete full of scorpions and adders’ certainly indicates to what degree the Christian Church as such is regulated in accordance with rigid and inflexible rules and to what degree it is essentially based on self-torture and masochism (Carrington, 1988, 5). The female rebel, however, succeeds in disrupting the regime of this monolithical patriarchal institution, and her rebelliousness is somehow beyond good and evil.

In The Hearing Trumpet the main narrative focuses on the quest for the Holy Grail (which incidentally does not belong to Christ, but to the Goddess Venus); but simultaneously we come across quite a few extraordinary or ‘freakish’ creatures in this novel. After certain cataclysmic events have occurred at the old ladies’ home, where the first-person narrator (ninety-two-year-old Marian Leatherby) has been placed by her family, the inmates witness the walls of a stone tower splitting open ‘like a broken egg’ and:

a winged creature that might have been a bird emerged…It shone with a bright light coming from its own body, the body of a human being entirely covered with glittering feathers and armless. Six great wings sprouted from its body and quivered ready for flight. Then with a shrill long laugh it leapt into the air and flew north, till it was lost to our sight. (Carrington, 1977, 133/4)

The winged creature mentioned here is Sephira – and she has clearly something to do with the 10 sephiroth (in other words emanations of the godhead) of cabbalistic thought. She is also associated with other female deities foregrounded in the narrative (Venus, the Queen Bee) as well as with the Eternal Female of Blakean or Goethean derivation, with Robert Graves’ White Goddess, and with the Magna Mater (the Great Mother) of earlier periods in human history. When the Grail (or Venus’ cup) is finally recaptured from those ecclesiastical authorities that have usurped it, the decisive transaction is, as a matter of fact, carried out by an altogether heterogeneous group of beings: ‘This is how the Goddess [Venus] reclaimed her Holy Cup with an army of bees, wolves, six old women, a postman, a Chinaman, a poet, an atom-driven ark, and a werewoman.The strangest army, perhaps, ever seen on this planet’ (Carrington, 1977, 157). But we furthermore notice that there are explicitly strong links between the human world and the animal kingdom – where the females (represented by the six old women of the nursing home) dominate.

In The Hearing Trumpet you might argue that as far as freakery is concerned the heights and the depths are played off against each other – whereas Sephira and a mythological character like the Queen Bee primarily belong to the heights, the depths are also put-into-discourse via the presence of various subterranean figures, for example, Anubeth (the sister of Marion Leatherby’s friend Marlborough, brought to the Mexican residence of the former by means of an atom-driven ark): ‘I am Anubeth [she says], High Queen of the Wolves [as a matter of fact, she is a werewoman, in other words another hybrid or composite or freakish being]. My people offer themselves to recover your most Holy Cup, Great Goddess Hecate Zam Pollum [4]’ (Carrington, 1977, 156). In other words, the powerful female deities and their helpers belong both to the heavens and to the terrestrial realm – and the Grail is finally placed ‘in some secret part of our cave’, viz. it is placed safely in the underworld (Carrington, 1977, 158).

In Angela Carter’s fantastic novel from 1984 Nights at the Circus the would-be ‘classic’ Gothic elements proliferate, but the heroine, the winged woman Fevvers, cleverly avoids the stereotypically passive role – as damsels in distress – usually imposed on female characters in Gothic fiction; for even if she is constantly persecuted by lecherous as well as homicidal males, she nevertheless manages to get herself out of these potentially dangerous situations with great skill and aplomb.

Of course, Fevvers as a winged woman is herself a freak, but in this case freakery is undoubtedly put-into-discourse in a manner that is quite different from, say, the way female and other freaks were displayed in the sideshows. As a tough-minded Cockney she is capable of managing her own affairs, and this becomes quite obvious when she is, for a short period, imprisoned within the walls of Madame Schreck’s classy brothel for gentlemen with very special preferences; her ‘institution’ is peopled by freaks or ‘prodigies of nature, such as I [in other words Fevvers herself]. Dear old Fanny Four-Eyes; and the Sleeping Beauty; and the Wiltshire Wonder, who was not three foot high; and Albert/Albertina, who was bipartite, that is to say,half and half and neither of either [in this sense a hermaphrodite]; and the girl we called Cobwebs’ (Carter, 1984, 59/60). In this connection we recognize quite a few well-known types of freakery from the sideshows and dime museums, even if there are also deviations from this repertory.

Fevvers manages to escape from Madame Schreck’s would-be Gothic establishment, and the procuress herself is at long last turned into a freak (the roles are reversed).Later – when Fevvers carries out her act (flying high above the audience) with Colonel Kearney’s Circus in St. Petersburg – it is her would-be lover, the American journalist Jack Walser, that becomes her anti-type; for he has signed up with the circus as a clown and ends up in the arena as the so-called Human Chicken, in other words as a bird that cannot fly (his derogatory role also reminds us of the trapeze artist Cleopatra’s sad fate as a Feathered Hen or Chicken at the end of Tod Browning’s Freaks ). There are birds (and women) that can fly, and then there are others who can just go through the motions, but are unable to rise from the solid ground.

4. Postmodern Freaks – Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love and The Residents’ Freak Show

According to Robert Rawdon Wilson:

[p]ost-modernism designates a nexus of intersecting discourses…It exemplifies the fruitfulness of post-structuralist metaphors that project splintered, instable textual mosaics in which all categories, both genres and periods, will display the decay of boundaries…It also shows the relevance of those other metaphors about boundaries that characteristically play important roles in Bakhtin’s thinking: metaphors in which alien languages confront each other in public for a, in which different speakers, bearing with them dissimilar axiological worlds, exchange utterances, seeking meanings that will never reside exclusively in either’s speech. (Rawdon Wilson qtd in Day, 1998, 168)

In Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love (2004) such postmodern characteristics play an important role. Furthermore, even if it is a first-person narrative it nevertheless leaves room for multi-voiced narrative experiments (this is also in accordance with Bakhtinian ‘carnivalism’) – thus the first-person speaker’s ‘freakish’ voice is played off against long passages from the notes of a certain Norval Sanderson (a journalist who follows and reports on the fairground to which the bald, hunchbacked albino dwarf [the narrator] and her whole family belong); apart from these notes there are news clippings, transcripts of interviews ‘with the people of Binewski’s Fabulon’, etc., etc. (Dunn, 2004, 213).

Whereas freaks to begin with were posited as counter-cultural characters (who as representatives of otherness contributed to stabilizing the ‘normality’ of the society that exhibited/ostracized them), what is characteristic of Geek Love is contrariwise that the freaks tend to become models (or counter-models) precisely vis-à-vis the ‘norms’, in other words so-called normal people. Thus Olympia’s (the first-person narrator’s) brother Arty, who has fins instead of hands and spends much of his life in a water-tank, manages to establish a cult around himself, and he also succeeds in persuading perfectly ordinary people to (gradually) mutilate themselves – undergoing more and more amputations, until they are finally transferred to the ‘rest homes’ of his organization as arm- and legless torsos. Even the journalist Norval Sanderson is by and by incorporated into the cult. Most of the freaks – as well as their father, in other words the owner of the fairground (Binewski’s Fabulon) – in the end die in a fire; but before this happens, several complications have made life very difficult for the majority of the freaks: Chick, who looks normal, but has strange telekinetic powers (in the end he brings about the forementioned all-consuming fire by telekinetical means), the Siamese twins who involuntarily give birth to a child whose father they hate (and who has been killed by their mother while raping the twins), and even Olympia herself who persuades Chick to transfer Arty’s semen to her womb and thus make her pregnant (a clearcut example of would-be ‘Gothic’ incest).

The weird outcome of the whole affair is that Olympia finally kills a woman who attempts to re-establish ‘Arturism’ (Arty’s cult) in her own way – and this is done by Olympia in order to save her daughter Miranda from the sadistic advances of this self-same, immensely wealthy woman. And after that Olympia kills herself – so that her whole first-person account literally becomes mémoires d’outre-tombe (reminiscences from beyond the grave). Anyway, the emancipatory aspects of carnival (pace Mikhail Bakhtin) are definitely toned down in this postmodern version of the carnivalesque-grotesque, where the old value systems are no longer valid, but at the same time appear to operate even in the underground in unforeseen, wholly uncontrollable ways. Instead the destructive and self-destructive potentials of all these anomalies are foregrounded.

The Californian avantgarde rock band The Residents have also referred to freakery in many places in their albums and videos, etc. As an example of The Residents’ extensive use of grotesque-carnivalesque elements in their music, we might take the record Freak Show (1990) – also available on cd-rom.

In Freak Show we are introduced to a series of sideshow artists, like Harry the Head, Herman the Human Mole, Wanda the Worm Woman, Jack the Boneless Boy, and Mickey the Mumbling Midget (the record is obviously inspired by Tod Browning’sFreaks). These sideshow freaks are introduced formally by a Sprech stallmeister with a pronounced German accent, which establishes a rather tenuous (overtly parodic) link to the Old World. The Residents’ Freak Show certainly represents a ‘deviation’ from the norms of official culture, an orientation towards the underbelly of the world, as it were, or towards the ‘abject’ (to use a Kristevan term). Wanda the Worm Woman (possibly echoing Sacher-Masoch’s femme fatale) is definitely a parodic version of a Christian saint or the Virgin Mary, somewhat similar to Robert Coover’s monstrous Blue-haired Fairy in his Pinocchio in Venice (1991), who both attempts to become the protagonist’s mother and his mistress:

Sneering at a leering lady
as she stares and squirms
At Wanda with her saintly smile
and living wig of worms
I like to watch their faces fall
as we disgust and shame them
Seeking suckers is my game
no longer lion taming.
(The Residents,1990)

Here we see that traditional circus acts (such as ‘lion taming’) are dismissed, and what this postmodern freak show exhibits instead is only what is capable of shocking its audiences, transgressing their norms (‘I like to watch their faces fall / as we disgust and shame them’) [5].

What is enacted in ‘Wanda the Worm Woman’ is definitely an ‘uncrowning’ of high culture, where the worm woman ironically confronts and stuns the audience with her ‘Mona Lisa smile’ (The Residents, 1990), sitting on top of a pile of worms; the material bodily lower stratum – to adopt a well-known Bakhtinian term – is definitely foregrounded here. Leonora Carrington’s quasi-erotic liaison with the animal kingdom has by now been replaced by an abject dive into the worm-infested underground, where, in Julia Kristeva’s terms: [a]pprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects’, and one simultaneously ‘understands why so many victims of the abject are its fascinated victims – if not its submissive and willing ones. (Kristeva, 1982, 1,9) Anyway, there is clearly a link to the kind of ambivalence that Rosemarie Garland Thomson has identified as the prototypical late modern (or postmodern) response to freakery:

Today the notion of a freak show that displays the bodies of disabled people for profit and public entertainment is both repugnant and anachronistic, rejected but nevertheless recent and compelling in memory. (Thomson, 1997)

However this may be, the apparent decline of freakery on the cultural scene in late modern societies – and the steadily growing medicalization of the ‘anomalies’ of the sideshows in the latter half of the twentieth and at the beginning of the twenty-first centuries – can certainly be related to the overall process of normalization described so eloquently by Michel Foucault in his Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison(1975, 1977, 1979):

The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social worker’-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements. (Foucault, 1979, 304)

We notice that the representation of female freaks has definitely changed since the nineteenth century – where the norms and ideals of patriarchal culture were largely left uncontested by both intellectuals and the general public (even if some, mainly female, writers and artists did problematise it in various ways). But during the latter half of the twentieth century feminism gradually became an important cultural force in the Western world (in particular after the 1960’s) – and this also colours the late modern and postmodern portrayal of female freaks (for example in Leonora Carrington’s and Angela Carter’s fiction, both of them articulate feminists). However, whereas an optimistic and utopian undercurrent tends to dominate earlier twentieth-century versions of female freakery (in other words in Carrington and Carter), a writer like Katherine Dunn appears to be more in accordance with a kind of fin-de-siècle pessimism – which is perhaps paralleled in certain late versions of feminism as well. Anyway, the cultural backlash of the Reagan era has certainly left its traces in the literary field as well as elsewhere. Under the glittering surfaces of consumer culture (represented, for example, by the Manhattan skyline) we are confronted with an ‘abject’ pile of worms.


  1. On the life-story of the historical ‘elephant man’,Joseph Merrick (1860-90), cp. Michael Howell and Peter Ford (1981): The True History of the Elephant Man(Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books).
  2. Thomson’s source is Altick, Richard D. (1978).The Shows of London (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)
  3. On sideshows cp. also FitzGerald, William G.(1987): ”Side-Shows”, The Strand Magazine, Vol. 13 (1897), 320-28, 407-16, 521-28, 696-700; Vol. 14 (1897), 91-96, 152-57. Cp. also Adams, Rachel (2001): Sideshow U.S.A. Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination (Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press). In this context it is interesting to notice that Rachel Adams attributes a longer span of time to the side-shows and/or freak-shows as an active cultural force than Thomson, Rosemarie Garland (1997). Extraordinary Bodies. Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press), for she notices a renewed interest in freak shows at the end of the twentieth century.
  4. ‘Hecate’ is, of course, the goddess of the witches, ‘Zam’ is an ancient Avestan deity (‘zam’ is the Indo-Iranian concept for ‘earth’, cp., and ‘Pollum’ establishes a direct link to ‘pollen’ and thereby, perhaps, to ancient (matriarchal) bee goddesses). On the latter female deities cp. Gimbutas, Marija (1996): The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe. 6500-3500 BC. Myths and Cult Images (Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press)
  5. Cp. also Dixon, Steve (Spring, 1999): “Digits, Discourse, and Documentation: Performance Research and Hypermedia”,TDR, Vol.43, No.1, 155. ‘The Freak Show CD-ROM (1996) by the cult band The Residents combines performance art with 3 D-animation characters, walk-through environments, original music, and encyclopedic elements examining historical circus “freaks”‘. The Computer Network (1998) quoted by Dixon on the same page, states emphatically: ‘The Residents were always multimedia artists who were just waiting for multimedia to happen’.


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Carrington, Leonora (1988). The Seventh Horse and Other Tales, trs. Kathrine Talbot & Anthony Kerrigan (New York: E.P. Dutton)

Carter, Angela (1984). Nights at the Circus(London: Chatto & Windus, The Hogarth Press)

Day, Aidan (1998). Angela Carter. The Rational Glass (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press)

Dennett, Andrea Stulman (1996). “The Dime Museum Freak Show Reconfigured as Talk Show”, in ed. Garland Thomson, Rosemarie Freakery. Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (New York, London: New York University Press)

Dunn, Katherine (2004). Geek Love (London: Abacus)

Foucault, Michel (1979). Discipline and Punish.The Birth of the Prison, tr. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books)

Fretz, Eric (1996). “P.T. Barnum’s Theatrical Selfhood and the Nineteenth-Century Culture of Exhibition”, in ed. Thomson, Rosemarie Garland(1996) Freakery. Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. (New York, London: New York University Press)

Harris, Neil (1973). Humbug. The Art of P.T. Barnum (Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press)

Kristeva, Julia (1982). Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection, tr. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press)

Kunhardt, Philip B, Jr, Kunhardt III, Philip B, Kunhardt, Peter W.(1995) P.T. Barnum. America’s Greatest Showman (New York; Alfred A. Knopf)

The Residents (1990). Freak Show (Torso 33183)

Russo, Mary (1995). The Female Grotesque. Risk, Excess and Modernity (New York, London: Routledge)

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland (1997). Extraordinary Bodies. Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press)