In the 19th century freaks were a common attraction. They lived separated from the bourgeoisie because they were different. Sources (see reader) tell us they had their own communities, in which they were equal and seen as ‘normal’.
Today we have a similar phenomenon in a different context. Subcultures differentiate themselves from the ‘norm’ by wearing different clothes or by showing off body art like tattoos or body piercings. They even call themselves freaks to show their otherness. Such movements are always inspired and led by famous people or idols. Especially young people can relate to heavy metal and rock music entertainers like Marilyn Manson (to name a famous one). I don’t want to talk about these people’s music or what messages there could be involved in their lyrics. I simply want to talk about the way they present themselves to the world – because there you can find similarities to 19th century freak shows.
First example: Dope – Everything sucks
In the video you can see several requisites and figures taken from a classic freak show – there’s the showman that presents the freaks, you have the strong man, the tall guy and a dwarf lady. All of these figures seem pretty sinister and rather uninviting. The band is also featured in a big cage in the middle of a crowd. By blending in the cage and the freaks frequently in turns the viewer can relate the two scenes pretty quick – the band is equated to the freak show. Everybody comes to watch them. The band presents itself in this manner – look we’re freaks. Come to our show! Of course there’s always the negative connotation of being a freak, being exposed for examination and so on, which surely could be one of their messages, but in this case the band is not presented as victims, but rather as being open about what they stand for.
Second example: Motionless in White – Immaculate Misconception
In this video there’s a quite different presentation given. Again the band members resemble the freaks, but unlike in the first example they are presented in a way more negative light. They are shown as the victims of society. They are protested against and signs are shown that basically say ‘freaks go to hell’. The video shows a lot of religious connotations. The singer is ‘attacked’ by a protester and he defends himself. Next you see him in the role of Jesus being captured and tortured. Interesting is that the same guy also plays the role of Pontius Pilate – the guy that sentences him to death. The guys in this video are shown as treated badly and having no rights in society.
Another example would be: Marilyn Manson – mOBSCENE
Here we have all the obvious freak show requisites and figures, like conjoined twins – Manson himself plays the show man. In this case it’s different again; it’s obviously staged freakishness. You can see the makeup, the twins are held together by a suit. The hints to 19th century freak shows are very obvious in this case. The artificiality and the deceit are shown clearly and intentionally.
I won’t interpret the different meanings of these videos – that’s a different topic. I want to look at them from a more general point of view.
Notable about these ‘modern freaks’ is first: the commercial point of view – of course, it’s a show that gets people’s interest. That’s for two kinds of people: people who can relate because they feel different, or not fitting into modern society, and people who can’t relate and find shows like these disgusting or frightening, but isn’t this exactly the same effect as it was in 19th century? Bands like the ones I named and many others know how to provoke by their looks and their performances. I don’t want to presume they do it just for commercial reasons, but nobody can deny the fame they get by doing so.
The other thing to mention is: those are made freaks – of course you don’t choose a certain look and behaviour without any kind of personal reason, but if society was so unbearable and mean to you, you could simply go change your clothes and wash the makeup off – perfectly blending in. It’s an intentional choice to be a freak in these cases (the reasons can be of great variety: from protest to craving attention). Nevertheless, it’s interesting how the freak show is knowingly and willingly used in modern society to get people’s attention. You could always argue that these bands stage themselves as freaks to show the rest of society how ignorant they are, and I don’t deny that they do so, but no matter what their intentions are – otherness, disgust, fear, interest, sympathy, relation to others, always mixed with a varying amount of sex, are used to ensure the audience gets satisfied with whatever they were looking to find. Here the freak show still exists, just in different social practices.
(I know it’s kind of shallow to leave out the songs/ lyrics at all, but this would simply go beyond the scope of this blog. Besides in a really general overview one could say the lyrics resemble the different kinds of freakishness shown in the videos.)