Monday, January 2, 2012
The strange history of the Frankenstein carnival sideshows
After the 1930s Frankenstein movies took the world by storm, people began creating carnival sideshows devoted to Frankenstein freaks. Film writer Pierre Fournier takes us back to a time when carnies mixed with The Monster.
Step right up!
The place is somewhere in England. The time, perhaps the late Thirties or the early post-war years. A barker makes his pitch - a colorful pseudo-scientific spiel, no doubt - as the crowd jostles for a glimpse of the mysterious masked women on the platform. Behind the curtained arches waits Eve, The Sensation.
Who was The Midway Bride of Frankenstein? Was she a real-life "freak", disturbingly deformed? A giantess, perhaps? Or was she a sideshow creation, a variation on the timeworn girl-to-gorilla trick, done with mirrors?
Sideshows thrived on cheap scares. The original Victorian-era Spookshows materialized ghosts onstage using magic lantern projections and the illusion known as Pepper's Ghost. These attractions evolved into fairground Haunted Houses with their creaky doors and crooked floors, stuffed mummies, dungeon torture scenes, and narrow labyrinths with summer job kids in dayglo rubber masks lying in wait.
In the Thirties, Boris Karloff movies made Frankenstein a household name and The Monster began stalking the fairgrounds. Frankenstein dummies were added to displays, and green Frankenstein Monster faces leered from banners. The traditional Haunted House, otherwise unchanged, might be recast as Frankenstein's Castle.
Even as fairgrounds embraced The Monster, sideshow themes worked their way into Frankenstein fiction and films. Numerous short stories and comic book adventures had The Monster hiding out as a circus freak. In movies, just to name a few instances, Boris Karloff's mad doctor Neimann escaped from the lunatic asylum and hijacked Professor Lampini's traveling Chamber of Horrors Show, complete with authentic Dracula skeleton, as his ride to The House of Frankenstein (1944). In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), the boys first encounter Glenn Strange's Frankenstein Monster packed in excelsior as an exhibit for MacDougal's House of Horror Museum. In Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Peter Cushing's Baron hires a shady sideshow hypnotist to unlock his defrosted monster's scrambled brains. In The Bride (1985), The Monster (Clancy Brown) finds brief respite as a circus performer and roustabout.
The Midway Bride of Frankenstein resurfaces in another British photograph, this one probably from the Fifties, of a tent foldout display painted with skulls, hellish faces and a very prominent topless victim overhead.
The art, as was often the case, might have been recycled from a jungle show or a Snake Lady exhibit. This Bride's booth, baking in the summer sun, pared down to the barest of essentials, reeks of hard times. No top hat barker here, no masked ladies to hook the crowds. No adults patrons in sight, either, but lots of children swarming excitedly around the cheap setup. Notice the kids at left, trying to sneak a peek at the scary wonders within.
I'm curious, too, about the secret Bride of the Fairground. I wonder what waited behind the tent flaps. I suspect the payoff might have been disappointing. At best, a mild scare to be had, or just a headshake at your own gullibility. But those garish posters exercise their fascination. The masked women hold silent promise. Even the later downscale display - She Is Real! She Is Alive! - is captivating. And that, really, is what you paid for. As you handed over your coins, you knew in your heart that nothing inside could ever match the thrill of your anticipation.
As Tom Norman - the British P.T.Barnum who had once displayed The Elephant Man - said, "It was not the show; it was the tale you told."
The photographs in this post are from the National Fairground Archives of the University of Sheffield. They keep a fabulous website tracking the history of Fairground attractions in Great Britain, illustrated with tons of vintage photos. The Frankenstein Monster, painted on banners or built up in plaster or papier maché, appears here and there.
On the site, be sure to see The Ghost on the Fairground about Ghost Shows and Ghost Trains, Horror on the Fair, a gallery of horror-themed photos, and Horror in Pop Culture and Fairground Art, a fascinating illustrated history of horror shows with an emphasis on movie-related influences, including Hammer Films.