Sex and violence, as any Hollywood producer knows, are powerful crowd pleasers. The Girly Freak Show, arriving in Missoula Monday night, takes the combination to excruciating heights. Scantily-clad women eating glass, breathing fire, and piercing their own flesh provide titillating shocks for the discriminating patron. Star and mistress Slymenstra Hymen promises a concoction of sideshow, burlesque and illusion that will assuredly contain ample portions of both eroticism and masochism.
Hymen, also known as Danielle Stampe, began her career with GWAR the hardcore performance group of “galactic warriors” who showered their audience with fake blood and other substances while staging pagan rituals, alien births and other fantasies of violence. Stampe’s alter ego, Hymen, grew out of her role in the festivities, a character she chose to maintain outside the world of GWAR.
While expanding her solo act to showcase fire-breathing and electrocution, as well as a softer and more glamorous character, Stampe brought together a cast of alternatively talented women in 1996 in New York City for the first incarnation of the Girly Freak Show. After a stint with Lollapalooza V and a tour through Europe, Stampe returned to GWAR and the Girly Freak Show faded out.
Once Stampe struck out on her own again, the show revived and resumed touring with a rotating cast of primarily female performers. The lone exception, Zamora the Torture King, joined Stampe from the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, probably the most famous of the several shock-sideshow acts currently in circulation. Performing what are billed as the most dangerous stunts of the Freak Show, Zamora skewers himself, lies on a bed of nails and performs internal flossing—swallowing string only to pull it out of an incision in his torso.
So, what is that makes these types of spectacles so alluring, beyond the usual suspects of shock and sex? In days past, freak shows were primarily composed of physically or developmentally disabled individuals, who fascinated audiences simply by performing everyday tasks in unusual ways, like lighting cigarettes without the benefit of arms or legs. Other performers were simply “wild men” or “savages”—Native Americans, South American tribesmen or African women. The compelling draw boiled down to the exoticism of their variance from the everyday world of the predominately white, working-class crowd.
Freak shows hit their peak of popularity in the late 1800s, during an era of increasingly scientific quantification of the world, and gave the masses a pseudo-scientific means of understanding deviance. By sequestering and spectacularizing “freaks,” the average citizen could comfortably assure himself of his own normalcy. In contrast, modern-day freak shows—now predominately performance and talent-specific, though a few “Ten-In-One” shows of congenital oddities still exist, most notoriously at Coney Island—applaud freakishness and encourage a sense of identification between audience and performer.
This aura of celebration evokes Mikhail Bakhtin’s classic notion of the carnival, the yearly debauched celebration before the austerities of Lent, as a means of safely transgressing the boundaries of acceptable behavior. The disguises, trickery and ritualistic dismantling of societal norms celebrate an escape from the drudgery of daily life and the restrictions of a moralistic society.
Modern performative freak shows, with the cast barely distinguishable from their tattooed, pierced audiences, mock the standards of behavior and appearance that govern our society. With Britney Spears writhing through mock-bondage fantasies on MTV and the Survivor castaways forever munching on bugs and brains, the shock bar set by mainstream culture has steadily risen.
While performative freak shows revel in their oddities, the essential function of these exhibitions remains the same as in days of yore: to define normality by difference and to offer up a visual opposite to the standard. Perhaps as science and medicine further expand their abilities to micromanage existence through genetic engineering, prenatal surgeries and screening and plastic surgeries, our longing for the purely primitive and natural has resurged.
With its confluence of adrenaline-fueled stunts and bump-and-grind attitude, shows like Stampe’s Girly Freak Show hark back to the age-old chemistry of eroticized revulsion. While acts ranging from the “Pussy Whipping Cowgirl” to the “Hoochie-Coochie Dance” might seem exploitative, Stampe has insisted in the past that the show actually operates as a grrl-power showcase of feminine iconography. Like the nouveau-burlesque shows that have begun to fill the void left by the sanitization of New York’s Times Square, the Girly Freak Show comes coated in a hearty dollop of irony and self-referentiality to distinguish itself from its seedier forebears.
The Freak Show’s list of performers promises a wide range of thrills and horrors for the evening. Stampe’s alter ego, Slymenstra Hymen, takes top billing as both hostess and star performer. Listed in the Guiness Book of World Records for both human endurance of high-voltage electricity and fire breathing, Hymen has been known to breathe out flames reaching 38 feet and absorb hundreds of thousands of volts of electricity, shooting lightning bolts from her fingers in the process.
Other performers include the aforementioned Zamora the Torture King; Miss Behave, a sword swallower; Commanda Galactica, a traditional sideshow stunt mistress; and Ula the Pain-Proof Rubber Girl, a contortionist and trapeze artist. Several other members may make an appearance, including the maybe-maybe not transsexual the World Famous Bob and Reina Terror, who endures several varieties of pain.
No matter who takes the stage, the Girly Freak Show certainly will offer a spectacle like no other, a glimpse of chaos and flirtation with torture. That is, if you can bear to watch.