It's a Freak Country
Looking to Buy a Human-War Necklace
a Pickled Cyclops Pig?
The Weirder the
Better at the Artifakes Shop,
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.``
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
Although Frierson and Mocsary say that what they do is all in
fun, their company, Artifakes, is serious business.
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.
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.
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
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.
are some oddities we have to make more palatable to the
public,`` Frierson admits.
Frierson and Mocsary founded Artifakes in 1988, they figured
they had a monopoly on a unique market.
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.``
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.``
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.``
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.
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.
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.
claims that all the oddities at his museum are real -- not
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.
the stuff ends up in the hands of Frierson and Mocsary.
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.``
price of oddities varies, from a couple of dollars to
thousands, depending on demand from both private collectors
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.``
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.
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.``
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
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
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.
thing is certain. Whatever they're selling is enough to freak
*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...
Submitted by Mark Frierson
Article by BETTY BRIGGS is a freelance writer.
July 08, 1990 Sun