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Big Top Debauchery 

Girly Freak Show among new breed of circus-inspired club acts

The circus ain't what it used to be. In the first half of the last century, carnivals traveled the countryside, bringing daredevil trapeze artists, bizarre human oddities and mysterious feats of animal mastery to small-town America, thereby pitching a permanent tent in our collective unconscious. The circus once inhabited a dark corner of the American psyche, a house of mirrors that inspired such sinister creations as the haunted carousel of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, Stephen King's murderous Pennywise the Clown and more Batman villains than you can shake an umbrella at. But somewhere along the way, the circus lost its darker edge and got awfully pedestrian. Perhaps the problem has to do with the sideshow, the circus industry's heart of darkness. Once a mainstay of any major carnival, the sideshow tapped audiences' appetites for the lurid and macabre. Displays of human "freaks," acts of impossible self-torture, illusions like the girl-to-gorilla trick and even bawdy burlesque dancers were relegated to the sideshow arena, midway attractions too macabre or titillating to be seen under the big top itself. But those traveling shows were largely replaced by rickety envoys of breakneck Tilt-a-whirls that forgot the genre's shady showbiz roots. Omitted entirely from modern incarnations of most circuses and obviously out of place at immobile amusement parks, sideshows seemingly vanished for several years, at least to the eyes of middle America.

Jim Rose changed all that. In the mid-90s, his Circus Sideshow, replete with performers doing grotesque stunts like supporting cinder blocks from pierced foreskins (no joke), brought the traveling freak show back into fashion. Although no longer on the road himself, Rose opened a Pandora's box of touring gross-out shows now canvassing the country. Two such acts -- the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus and the Know Nothing Family Zircus Zideshow -- drifted through Charlotte a while back, and yet another -- the Girly Freak Show -- comes to town this weekend.

Kathleen Kotcher isn't surprised by these new tribes of itinerant freaks. As associate editor of James Taylor's Shocked and Amazed, a sort of industry newsletter/literary magazine of the freak show trade, Kotcher says sideshows never went away in the first place. "I think people have just remembered to look for it again," she says. "I think everything runs in cycles, and now is an uptime for sideshow."

Invading bars and music clubs instead of county fairgrounds, the new generation of sideshow tends to rely on freaks of the self-made variety. Gone are the armless wonders and fat ladies that were once staples; attractions now are largely what old-school carnies would call torture shows. The Know Nothing Family, for example, includes performers whose acts center around a bed of nails, or, even more perilous, power tool stunts.

The reality and immediacy of the sideshow act is certainly central to its appeal. But there's a certain fascination with the lurid and a bus-wreck aesthetic that also makes these exhibitions hard to look away from. Zamora the Torture King, aka Tim Cridland, knows how to work the gag reflexes of his audience without using stage tricks. He just performs his signature feat -- piercing skewers through the muscles in his biceps.

"[Sideshow] is something that there's always an interest in, no matter what the culture is like," he says. "People, especially now, are so used to seeing special effects and computer stuff that when they see something new, it's even more of a shock." A shock indeed, like watching Cridland do his yogi flossing routine, in which he swallows a rope and then extracts it from a hole he cuts in his stomach. "What I'm doing is not going to cause me pain or injury. Some people miss this point but it's mind over matter. If I were really hurting myself, I couldn't do this show over and over for 10 years."

A former member of the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, the Torture King has toured in recent years with shows of his own creation. He's now the token male member of the Girly Freak Show, the brainchild of GWAR shockstress Slymenstra Hymen, which entertains audiences with displays of self-mutilation. Slymenstra, aka Danielle Stampe, sees her Girly Freak Show as a seductively dark resurrection of risque burlesque tradition. She calls it a "variety show."

"Rock & roll in a way killed the variety show, because after that, people thought the only kind of entertainment was music or something. I just don't get it," she says. Stampe stages an elaborate peek-a-boo game in her show, channeling characters ranging from a deadly half-woman-half-spider creature to a mysterious cannibal stripper -- all through the use of over-the-top costuming and Slymenstra's showmanship. The show also features New York underground performance artist Reine Terror walking on shattered glass, serving as a human dartboard and doing all the stunts Slymenstra says she's "too much of a wimp to do."

According to Kotcher, variety acts like the Girly Freak Show really are nothing new -- a handful of shows featured scantily clad women doing dangerous stuff have come and gone over the years. But Slymenstra and her Mt. Doom dominatrix gear strike a powerful shadow against Siegfried and Roy and provide an R-rated alternative to the family-friendly Ringling Bros. fare. In our era of kick-ass Charlie's Angels and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Slymenstra is an extreme form of what she calls "the strong, independent, iron-clad, iron-willed woman with big hooters."

Stampe didn't dream of running off to join the circus when she was a child. Her fantasy instead was to become a star on Broadway. Though she's performing less with GWAR these days, she says she'll always be part of the band. In the meantime, she continues to take the Girly Freak Show on a tour of the country and is working on a Vegas version of her show. And yes, she still dreams of Broadway. "I'm addicted to the stage now. Nobody's getting rid of me that easily."

And what if she gets her wish? Can a genre as decidedly non-mainstream as sideshow ever make it in the spotlight of Broadway?

For Kathleen Kotcher, the question is irrelevant. From her perspective, the mainstreaming of freak shows has already started.

"Sideshow is where you find it," she says. "There aren't so many sideshows on traditional carnival midways anymore. They're in bars and clubs [with performers like Zamora and Slymenstra]. They appear on television [name your talk or variety show]. Parts of 'sideshow culture' have become popularized and commonplace [tattoos and piercings]. Once you start looking for it, you'll start noticing that it's everywhere."

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