Where Have all the Freak Shows Gone?

Growing up, humid days and warm nights meant the Westchester County Fair was rolling into town. The fair took over Yonkers Raceway for a couple of weeks, a real hoedown for us city folk. Along with shaky, suspect rides, there were carnival games, artery clogging fried foods, livestock shows, performing monkeys, a demolition derby and my favorite, the freak show.

As a teenager, I was both thrilled and royally pissed when the fair set up stakes. Thrilled I had two weeks of bright lights, shrill noises, girls with roach clips in their feathered hair and oddities galore. Pissed that every girl in the neighborhood flocked to hang with the rough carnies who were quintessential bad boys. Sure, the girls would come to us regular folk when they wanted tickets for a ride, cotton candy, or the big teddy bear you spent $20 on throwing darts at balloons. But when it came to unleashing their raging hormones, the dudes in the greased, torn jeans and perpetual cigarette breath were the victors.

Fucking carnies.

I digress.

For my money, the best part of the fair was the freak show. For just a dollar, we entered into a dark, stifling tent and got to peruse a host of human and animal curiosities, some so close you could actually touch them. Every girl I brought inside freaked out (pardon the pun), which may explain why they ran to the carnies. Oh well. I wanted to see the two headed cow, lizard woman, bird man, mutated pig and on and on.

Even though I knew most of it was fake, I couldn’t get enough. One of my friends once got salty with the bearded lady. I can’t remember what he said, but I do remember her telling us to “get the fuck outta here before I kill you!” We ran from the tent, breathless and more charged up than if we’d just come off a roller coaster. The bearded lady threatened to freaking kill us!

How much more awesome can it get?

Sadly, by the late eighties, the freak show was gone, replaced by more crooked game booths. It seemed people had grown weary of the freaks. In a fledgling politically correct world, it wasn’t nice to provide a living for people who were on display of their own volition. Better they go broke than support a big bad freak show that must have had a gun to the lizard woman’s head.

The fair was never the same. Eventually, it stopped coming to town. Nothing wicked this way came.

But, there’s one movie that has always taken me back to those forever lost days at the carnie freak show. That’s Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse. It’s not the best horror movie ever made, but it’s always been in my top 5 of all time.

Back before we had a VCR, I’d heard plenty about Hooper’s chilling, too-gross-for-young-eyes movie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The theaters by me refused to bring it back (which they would often do to fill a horror double bill). I actually didn’t get to see TCM until I was in college.

However, they did show The Funhouse when it first came out in 1981. At the time, I thought it was just a cool monster flick. Nothing special.

Now that the sounds of calliope music have long since faded and the bearded lady lives only in memory, The Funhouse is a time capsule of my childhood, a rite of summer and a wish for the way things used to be.

For the uninitiated, The Funhouse marks the debut of ultimate girl next door, Elizabeth Berridge as Amy Harper (who went on to star as Mozart’s main squeeze in the hit, Amadeus). The movie starts with Elizabeth stripping down and slipping into the shower (always a plus). She’s attacked Psycho-style by a shadowy killer wearing a mask.

We quickly learn the killer is her little brother, Joey, and the knife is a prop. I won’t get into a brother wanting to see his sister naked in the shower. Just put that under the “ick” column, one of quite a few riding the ick undercurrent in The Funhouse.

Joey has the ultimate horror hound’s room, with walls plastered with Universal monster posters, model kits, masks and more. I was and still am envious of that kid.

Cut to Amy saying goodbye to her drunk mother and daft father to go to the “movies” with a new boy. She gets in his muscle car, the backseat populated by her pot smoking best friend and her boyfriend. Try not to fixate on the fact that these obvious 20 somethings are supposed to be in high school.

Well, off they go to an old school carnival complete with barkers, nudie shows, rickety rides and of course, a freak show. They don’t spend much time in the freak show, other than to gape at a few pickled punks.

Being horny teens, they decide to get on the funhouse ride and jump off so they can spend the night screwing around amidst the scary automatons. I know, not the sexiest backdrop, but when you’re a teen, you can bang on a slaughterhouse floor and not give it a second thought.

Little do they know, the sweaty, swarthy barker who runs the funhouse (played by Kevin Conway, who tackles three roles) has a deformed, crazed son who wears a Frankenstein mask to hide his terrifying face. Things go south in a hurry when they watch said son get a handjob from the fortune teller (the great Sylvia Miles, who can also be seen in the horror classic The Sentinel) whom he ends up killing for mocking his premature ejaculation. It’s a great PSA for not entertaining prostitutes…or fortune tellers.

One of the lunkheads steals cash from the battered cashbox the boy/monster left behind, and now they’re trapped in the funhouse with a PO’d daddy and his murderous son.

The Funhouse lives up to his name, and also hints at some disturbing goings-on in the town, such as an old man who gets his kicks out of pointing his rifle at little Joey and the carnie who finds him running and scared in the closed carnival and may have molested him before calling his parents.

But it’s the carnival itself, the cry of the creepy barkers, the tense giggling in the freak show that give this movie life and make me wish for a time machine. Yes, it’s a tad darker and scarier than my own kid carnie, but I 

pine for it just the same. Okay, maybe more than a tad. No one died in the funhouse by me, though there were a few stabbings on the midway.

If you find yourself in a small town this summer with an old fashioned carnival and freak show, treasure the moment. Put down your phone and just be in the moment.

Or, if you’re like me, get some fried dough and watch The Funhouse. And thank Tobe Hooper for making something that’s more than just a horror movie. Thank him for filming your twisted childhood.

Hunter Shea is the product of a misspent childhood watching scary movies, reading forbidden books and wishing Bigfoot would walk past his house. He doesn’t just write about the paranormal—he actively seeks out the things that scare the hell out of people and experiences them for himself. You can follow his madness at huntershea.com.

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