Freak Show

16 07 2011

Vintage Freak Show poster: credit: x-ray delta one

Circuses used to feature Freak Shows. Those born with disfiguring deformities or maimed through accident or disease found a way to make a living by exhibiting themselves and their lives to the paying public. I don’t think records exist as to what sort of living they made, but given that many other jobs would have been barred to them at the time, it was probably better than starving. Who knows, perhaps they enjoyed the interactions, being the centre of attention.

Did you think as a society we had moved on from turning the misfortunes of others into a spectator sport?

Starting with a generally celebrity-driven format, the Phil Donahue Show (1967-1996) and later Oprah pioneered the “average Joe and Josephine” stories as interesting to others. We peered into the lives of others, asked probing questions and watched from afar as they cried. We began to believe that the private lives of others could be served up as entertainment for vicarious thrills. But we wanted more drama. We wanted their private lives to be like soap operas.

And so entered the evil twin. Starting with Jerry Springer Show, where family and relationship disputes between dysfunctional, wildly emotional and occasionally violent people were paraded, with Jerry as the lion tamer prodding and poking them into a frenzy. Some of the stories seemed so unbelievably bizarre and complex that viewers speculated that they were made up, with actors playing the parts. Others were just sad. Perhaps this is the latter day version Roman entertainments, where we watch people tear each other apart for our amusement.

And then there is Reality TV where groups of people are placed in artificial situations under high pressure, isolated from their families and friends, deprived of sleep (a form of torture under the Geneva Convention) and asked to do highly stressful tasks such as memorise a song and perform it for a live audience, cook a meal for a visiting celebrity chef with three bizarre ingredients they have never seen before, or compete in some sort of humorous obstacle course hobbled by fancy dress.

According to author Jon Ronson, the insanity we see on Jerry Springer, and the later reincarnations of Reality TV, is not accidental. Of all the people who write into these shows offering up their stories and begging to be given air-time (a sign of insanity to start with), the producers (or at least the one he spoke to) actually picked who would get onto the show based on the level of madness they exhibited. Like Goldilocks and the three bears, they picked their way through the diagnoses to select those madnesses that could be served up for entertainment. Psychotic illness – too much. Mild depression – not enough. Personality disorders – now we’re talking.

What damage is done by placing people with diagnosed mental illness into artificially manipulated high pressure situations and then tormenting them until they crack? Some go on to become minor celebrities, sure. But others may be damaged permanently.

In 1995 the Jenny Jones Show lured a man onto their show to find out who had a secret crush on him. When it was revealed on the show that his secret admirer was a male friend, not a female as he had been led to believe, he appeared to deal with it with a sense of humour. Three days following the taping of the show, he bought a gun, went to the home of his secret admirer – and shot him dead. Surprisingly, the show was not cancelled although that particular episode was not aired. Turns out he had a history of mental illness and drug & alcohol addiction – he was convicted of murder in the second degree and is now serving a 25-50 year prison term. The Show won a suit brought against them by the victim’s family for wrongful death.

One wonders how the contestants fit back into their lives when the TV cameras are gone and all they are left with is the memories of what they confessed or did publicly on TV.

Do we want to be a society that considers watching people disintegrate to be entertaining?

(This blog was inspired by Jon Ronson’s latest book, The Psychopath Test: A journey through the madness industry. Fascinating book that kept me up all night reading, well worth it. Jon can be seen on Youtube explaining a little more about the premise of the book. To purchase the book from Amazon, please click here:The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry