It's a Freak Country it You'er Looking to Buy

 

Human-War Necklace or a Pickled Cyclops Pig? The Weirder the Better at the Artifakes Shop, where nothing's Normal unless it's Odd.

 

``Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks are born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They're the aristocrats.``

 

ON AN ISLAND IN TAMPA BAY, down a twisting mangrove-lined driveway that leads to a gray building, Mark Frierson and John Mocsary are putting the finishing touches on a ``baby bouncer`` a fabricated fetus dangling in a jar of formaldehyde.

 

Although Frierson and Mocsary say that what they do is all in fun, their company, Artifakes, is serious business.

 

The two-year-old company specializes in reproducing the world's most bizarre oddities, from three-legged calves to monster faces with gashes and gouges and hacked-off noses and ears.

 

With the current popularity of supermarket tabloids, bizarre TV features, and martial arts and horror movies, there is no shortage of work.

 

Creating the oddities is actually very simple. Say you just have to have a footprint of a Sasquatch or a shrunken human head for your coffee table. Frierson and Mocsary will recreate either one with a little latex, stage makeup and paint. It helps to have a photograph of the ``real thing`` from your vacation in the Northwest or on the Amazon River, but it's not essential. Frierson and Mocsary can work from your memory, or simply indulge their own imaginations.

 

Artifakes` real and fabricated oddities include everything from mystical skull beads made from the bones of dead Buddhist monks to a two-headed king snake. They even have a human-ear necklace, copied from the type of ``trophies`` that some American soldiers collected during the Vietnam War.

 

Even the most bizarre requests never surprise Frierson and Mocsary -- whether it's for a replica of an electric chair for a traveling crime show or a bust of John Merrick, the Elephant Man.

 

Sometimes with human oddities, the real thing is so grotesque, as in the case of ``Chicken Boy`` (a young boy whose face resembled a chicken), that Artifakes ``tames down`` its fabrication. That's what Frierson and Mocsary did when they recreated the boy's image for the Sun, a supermarket tabloid based in Boca Raton that published the photo on its cover.

 

``There are some oddities we have to make more palatable to the public,`` Frierson admits.

When Frierson and Mocsary founded Artifakes in 1988, they figured they had a monopoly on a unique market.

 

``We thought supplying carnivals with oddities would be big business, but that just didn't materialize,`` Mocsary says. ``Freak and sideshows are obsolete. It's thought to be in bad taste to exhibit freaks of nature.``

 

``Some fly-by-night carnivals still have real freaks, but even those are dying out,`` Frierson adds.

 

FREAK SIDESHOWS ORIGINATED IN England around 1840 and were a popular form of entertainment for more than a hundred years. Many people do not know that P.T. Barnum's first claim to fame was not the circus that still bears his name, but the American Museum, an oddities attraction in New York City.

 

Freak shows were also big draws at World's Fairs during the 1920s and `30s. The Believe It Or Not ``Odditorium`` at the 1933-34 Chicago Exposition displayed a two-headed baby (actually a Siamese twin preserved in formaldehyde) that brought in a then-whopping $900,000 at the box office.

 

Some say it was the eugenics movement (devoted to improving the human species through the control of hereditary factors) and advances in medical technology that brought an end to attractions such as the Dog-faced Man, the Chinese Giant, the Wild Men of Borneo and others. Newspapers, religious organizations, doctors and human-rights groups played a part in the creation of laws and taxes that discouraged shows in which disfigured or handicapped people were objects of ridicule.

 

Frierson says that feminists protesting an exhibition of some two dozen fetuses in New York in the early `70s dealt the final blow to freak shows.

 

The protest ended up in court, where showmen won the right to exhibit their geeks, freaks and fakes. But by then the public was beginning to lose its enthusiasm for the grotesque.

 

``So carnival owners switched to exhibits like the Headless Woman, which is an illusion created with mirrors,`` explains Frierson. ``If you see a human fetus in some exhibit now, it's probably a `baby bouncer,` a rubber replica suspended in water tinted by a tea bag and a drop of milk. But now people are complaining that these are deceptive and fraudulent. It's a no-win situation for the showmen.``

 

THE NUMBER OF SIDESHOWS MAY have diminished, but fascination with freaks -- real or fake -- is on the rebound.

 

``People are naturally curious,`` Frierson says. ``Some of my (freak) friends tell me that the best times of their lives were spent with carnivals, being with others like themselves. Many of them cannot get regular jobs, so this is a way they can make money from their handicap.``

 

Among Artifakes best customers are supermarket tabloids such as the Sun, which has a weekly circulation of 500,000. Frierson and Mocsary won't reveal their own arrangements with the tabloids, but they say many of the front-page oddities are supplied to the newspapers by the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. From the time we are kids, parents tell us it's not polite to gawk. But the so-called odditoriums and tabloids take a different approach.

 

``We make it okay to look straight into the eyes of a two-headed calf,`` says Vinnie Lamano, owner of the Great American Fun Museum in Kissimmee.

 

While Frierson and Mocsary are in the business of fabricating oddities, Lamano is in the business of exhibiting them. The Fun Museum has over 500 ``real`` oddities from 50 countries, from a pickled Cyclops pig and a two- faced kitten to the world's smallest Bible.

 

Lamano claims that all the oddities at his museum are real -- not illusions.

 

Odditoriums like Lamano's are not new. They are a throwback to the turn-of- the-century dime museums that once dominated the amusement industry. Cities large and small had museums featuring freak shows, and for their owners freak- hunting was a full-time occupation.

 

According to Lamano, today there is an underground fraternity of oddity collectors. They find items at flea markets, antique shops, in attics and old forgotten trunks.

 

Much of the stuff ends up in the hands of Frierson and Mocsary.

 

``Maybe somebody has a stuffed five-legged dog they found in their late uncle's garage and they don't feel comfortable throwing it out,`` Frierson says. ``It's not something you'd use as a mantle piece, so they're glad to get rid of it.``

 

The price of oddities varies, from a couple of dollars to thousands, depending on demand from both private collectors and museums.

 

One day a grotesque, shrunken head arrived at Artifakes in a foam-filled cardboard box. It was your standard native head from the jungles of South America, about the size of a tennis ball. Its lips were sewn shut with jute.

 

Frierson had ordered the head from a collector who claimed that Indians had skinned and boiled the head to shrink it.

 

``These heads -- if they're authentic -- can go for as much as $10,000,`` says Frierson, *who used to ``restore`` the faces of cadavers for funeral homes. ``It's not too hard to get fooled by fakes -- a lot of heads are made from goat skins.``

 

Being in the oddities business is certainly, well, odd. But what about the private collectors, the folks who take these freaky things home with them? Whether it's Michael Jackson and his attempt to buy the skeleton of the Elephant Man or Frierson and his five-legged dog, the answer may go back to frightening yet fascinating childhood experiences.

 

Frierson remembers being taken by his mother to sideshows when he was a young boy.

``I was terrified,`` he says. ``I ran out screaming when I saw Little Richard, the midget. It was only during the `70s that I moved beyond fear and into appreciation.``

 

When Frierson started collecting oddities in high school, his father asked him why he didn't get a real job. But Frierson Sr. eventually became a convert, and now he too has invested in oddities.

 

Frierson, who grew up in Florida, has always been intrigued with the town of Gibsonton near Tampa. Gibsonton was a campy hometown for circus performers in the `30s and `40s, and many retired freaks still live there.

 

Frierson is very protective of his friendships with the people there, including the ``Half Lady,`` the ``Monkey-faced Lady`` and her husband ``Alligator Man,`` and Melvin Burkhart, ``The Human Block.``

 

Frierson is uncertain about where the oddities business will take him and Mocsary. But they are willing to go wherever their imaginations take them. The fun, they say, for clients and audiences, is in guessing what's real and what's not.

 

One thing is certain. Whatever they're selling is enough to freak you out.

 

*Just for the record, the reporter confused me with my partner, when stating that I used to "restore" the faces of cadavers for funeral homes... Mark Frierson

 

Images: Mark Frierson

 

Article: Submitted by Mark Frierson

Article by BETTY BRIGGS is a freelance writer. July 08, 1990 Sun Sentinel

 


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