STRANGE HISTORY OF THE FRANKENSTEIN CARNIVAL SIDESHOW
After the 1930s Frankenstein movies took the world
by storm, people began creating carnival sideshows
devoted to Frankenstein freaks. Film writer Pierre
Fournier takes us back to a time when carnies mixed
with The Monster.
is somewhere in England. The time, perhaps the late
Thirties or the early post-war years. A barker makes
his pitch - a colorful pseudo-scientific spiel, no
doubt - as the crowd jostles for a glimpse of the
mysterious masked women on the platform. Behind the
curtained arches waits Eve, The Sensation.
The Midway Bride of Frankenstein? Was she a real-life
"freak", disturbingly deformed? A giantess, perhaps?
Or was she a sideshow creation, a variation on the
timeworn girl-to-gorilla trick, done with mirrors?
thrived on cheap scares. The original Victorian-era
Spookshows materialized ghosts onstage using magic
lantern projections and the illusion known as
These attractions evolved into fairground Haunted
Houses with their creaky doors and crooked floors,
stuffed mummies, dungeon torture scenes, and narrow
labyrinths with summer job kids in dayglo rubber masks
lying in wait.
Thirties, Boris Karloff movies made Frankenstein
a household name and The Monster began stalking the
fairgrounds. Frankenstein dummies were added to
displays, and green Frankenstein Monster faces leered
from banners. The traditional Haunted House, otherwise
unchanged, might be recast as Frankenstein's Castle.
fairgrounds embraced The Monster, sideshow themes
worked their way into Frankenstein fiction and films.
Numerous short stories and comic book adventures had
The Monster hiding out as a circus freak. In movies,
just to name a few instances, Boris Karloff's mad
doctor Neimann escaped from the lunatic asylum and
hijacked Professor Lampini's traveling Chamber of
Horrors Show, complete with authentic Dracula
skeleton, as his ride to The House of Frankenstein
(1944). In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
(1948), the boys first encounter Glenn Strange's
Frankenstein Monster packed in excelsior as an exhibit
for MacDougal's House of Horror Museum. In Evil of
Frankenstein (1964), Peter Cushing's Baron hires a
shady sideshow hypnotist to unlock his defrosted
monster's scrambled brains. In The Bride
(1985), The Monster (Clancy Brown) finds brief respite
as a circus performer and roustabout.
Bride of Frankenstein resurfaces in another British
photograph, this one probably from the Fifties, of a
tent foldout display painted with skulls, hellish
faces and a very prominent topless victim overhead.
as was often the case, might have been recycled from a
jungle show or a Snake Lady exhibit. This Bride's
booth, baking in the summer sun, pared down to the
barest of essentials, reeks of hard times. No top hat
barker here, no masked ladies to hook the crowds. No
adults patrons in sight, either, but lots of children
swarming excitedly around the cheap setup. Notice the
kids at left, trying to sneak a peek at the scary
curious, too, about the secret Bride of the
Fairground. I wonder what waited behind the tent
flaps. I suspect the payoff might have been
disappointing. At best, a mild scare to be had, or
just a headshake at your own gullibility. But those
garish posters exercise their fascination. The masked
women hold silent promise. Even the later downscale
display - She Is Real! She Is Alive! - is
captivating. And that, really, is what you paid for.
As you handed over your coins, you knew in your heart
that nothing inside could ever match the thrill of
Norman - the British P.T.Barnum who had once displayed
The Elephant Man - said, "It was not the show; it
was the tale you told."
photographs in this post are from the
National Fairground Archives
of the University of
Sheffield. They keep a fabulous website tracking the
history of Fairground attractions in Great Britain,
illustrated with tons of vintage photos. The
Frankenstein Monster, painted on banners or built up
in plaster or papier maché, appears here and there.
site, be sure to see
The Ghost on the Fairground
about Ghost Shows and Ghost Trains,
Horror on the Fair,
a gallery of horror-themed photos, and
Horror in Pop Culture and
a fascinating illustrated
history of horror shows with an emphasis on
movie-related influences, including Hammer Films.
By Pierre Fournier