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Old 01-14-2004, 03:54 PM
Join Date: Sep 2001
Location: El Paso, Texas
Posts: 1,836
The Straight Dope on carnival geeks.

The dictionary states that a "geek" was originally a carnival freak who ate live animals as part of a show. That sure sounds like wholesome family entertainment? When and where was this common? Is this something from the Middle Ages, or is it (shudder) something anyone here has ever seen first hand.
Old 01-14-2004, 04:29 PM
Join Date: Apr 2001
Posts: 781
Originally Posted by syncrolecyne
The dictionary states that a "geek" was originally a carnival freak who ate live animals as part of a show. That sure sounds like wholesome family entertainment? When and where was this common? Is this something from the Middle Ages, or is it (shudder) something anyone here has ever seen first hand.
Leslie Fiedler discusses this in his book Freaks. He notes that the word "geek" was originally carnival parlance for various sideshow performers of low caste, and that a "wild man" of the sort you describe was originally called a "glomming geek", "to glom" meaning something like "to gorge" or "to gulp down".

The word "geek" is still used in its general sense in some carnival circles, apparently. A few years ago the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did a piece about a man whose unhappy lot it was to dress up at a booth at the state fair in a clown costume and have baseballs heaved at him. His employer referred to him as "the new geek".

Early in William Lindsey Gresham's novel Nightmare Alley the central character is hanging out by the geek's cage one night when he encounters his boss. He asks him just how one manages to find a geek, anyway; is he some half-wit a backwoods family keeps out in back of the barn or something?. No, says his boss; you don't find a geek, you make one. First you approach a hopelessly degraded alcoholic and tell him you want him to pretend to be a geek for a few weeks until you find a real one. Apparently a common dodge is for a person to have a razor concealed in their hand with which they cut the animals they are "biting".

The carnival operators keep him supplied with liquor until he is utterly dependent on them, and then one day they tell him that the rubes are getting suspicious, so he will have to start actually biting the heads off of the chickens, eating the rats, or whatever. By then he will already be far down the road of no return.

At the end of the novel the protagonist is a recovering alcoholic who heads across country to interview for a job as a palm reader with a carnival. On the way he reads some devastating news in the paper, and he shows up for his interview days late in a dissheveled drunken condition. The carnival boss tells him he doesn't have an opening for a palm reader, but he might have some work for him after all. Of course, it would only be until they find a real geek...

The novel was made into a film with Tyrone Power, but here the ending was softened some so that there was hope that the central character might save himself after all. IIRC, Eudora Welty also wrote a story on the subject in which it was suggested that, at one time at least, a carnival geek might actually be a retardate who had been abducted as a child.

When I was in grade school in the 1960s there was a carnival which passed through St. Louis every year. My parents had too much class--and too much regard for my psyche--to ever take me, but some kids I knew claimed to have actually gone to this spectacle, which was invariably refered to by kids as "The Freak Show". There accounts (and I'm no longer sure, but they may have all been at second or third hand), was that there was a "wild man" in a cage who ate rats. There was some business where the barker would pay a prize if you could eat a sandwich while watching him. It is said that to protect their interest, the sandwiches they gave out were highly spiced with something unpallatable.

This same carnival had girl who turned into a gorilla. I recall the radio ads for this attraction were very entertaining, or at least seemed so to a boy of ten or eleven. From descriptions some friends of my older brother gave, they apparently used a very old optical trick in which a person in a gorilla suit stood to the side off stage while a young woman in a bikini stood on stage. Between the audience and the young woman was a glass sheet tilted at a forty-five degree angle. By manipulating the lighting, this sheet would act first as a window through which the woman was seen, and thenwould reflect the "gorilla". That is, they really did "do it with mirrors".
Old 01-14-2004, 07:44 PM
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Penn & Teller had a bit of a write-up about the girl-to-gorilla trick in one of their books. Probably How to Play In Traffic. IIRC, Teller catches the show, then hangs briefly with the girl and the gorilla afterwards.
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