It was only around 1847 that the term ‘freak’ became synonymous with human corporeal difference. It was also in the 1840s that notions of ‘the norm’ emerged. It was given impetus by the Belgium statistician Adolphe Quetelet who developed the concept of the ‘average man.’ This represented a new statistical thinking that conceived variability as error from the mean. Suffice to say, the ‘freak’ epitomised this error.

Before these developments, however, those that deviated from the norm were seen differently. Human anomalies were called ‘prodigies in nature,’ ‘phenomenon in nature,’ ‘monsters’ and ‘marvels.’ They were connected to God’s creation, part of the totality of nature. They might have been seen as extraordinary but they were still included in God’s scheme. Yet the ascendancy of science would demystify and objectify these creations, placing them at odds from ‘normality.’

According to the OED, the word freak derives from ‘freak of nature’ or ‘lusus naturae,’ defined as ‘an abnormally developed individual of any species.’ In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, those with abnormal bodies usually fell under two categories: firstly, the new, unknown or old ‘races’ and secondly, ‘nature’s jokes’ or ‘monsters.’ Both distinctions imply the prevalence of anthropology and science in marking these categories, while signalling their relationship with the freak show itself.

The ‘exotic’ became an interest as explorers traipsed the non-Western world. From these regions, travellers brought back collected items, including humans, and curios stories of savagery. The freak show fed-off this fascination.  The pin-head siblings, Maximo and Bartola, were labelled ‘the Last of the Mysterious Aztecs’ when shown in London during the late 1880s and early 1890s. Their souvenir pamphlet, sold for one shilling at their shows, recalled a romantic adventure where three travellers discovered a ‘few insignificant individuals, diminutive in stature, and imbecile in nature.’

Maximo and Bartola intrigued the scientific community. They visited the Royal College of Surgeons and were available for scientific examination. Scientists and anthropologists alike were visitors to the freak show, which often used their examination reports as material for freak biographies that were sold at the show.

In America, Hiram and Barney Davis, two American dwarfs, were displayed around the same time as the ‘pin-heads.’ They were labelled ‘The Wild Men of Borneo,’ displayed against a jungle scene, were chained, told to crawl on all fours and speak in gibberish. Their pamphlets described them as ‘wild animals full of monkey antics, ugly in temper and hard to imagine.’ They were shown as Darwin’s ‘missing link’ between ape and man.

Today, both the so-called ‘pin-heads’ and ‘wild men’ would be labelled mentally ill, which highlights an important point about the freak. Although distinguished by the raw materiality of their body, the concept of the ‘freak’ is culturally and historically contingent. Indeed, the freak is more defined by the narratives which frame their exhibition than by the reality of their bodily anomaly.

Tom Norman, a famous nineteenth century English showman of freaks, wrote in his autobiography: ‘you could indeed exhibit anything in those days. Yes anything from a needle to an anchor, a flea to an elephant, a bloater you could exhibit as a whale. It was not the show; it was the tale that you told.’ The importance of a narrative gave the freak a public person, which added another layer to their malleability.

For Naomi Sutherland, who was exhibited as a sideshow attraction, the only ‘difference’ that made her a ‘freak’ was her long hair. Today, while we might pay to see a Bearded Lady; we would certainly demand our money back if under the banner of the ‘freak show’ we saw a woman with long hair. We might, on the other hand, proclaim the mantle of ‘freak’ if we lived in the 1960s, when ‘freak’ and ‘freaking out’ became terms of self-identification as a means of challenging the conformist system.

So it was not only the word ‘freak’ that changed dependent on the historical context but also the freak subject. In short, what defines the freak are the social and cultural forces, historically situated, that map onto the body certain narratives that separate ‘them’ from ‘us.’

In the nineteenth century, the ‘us’ who stared at the freak were a diverse bunch. From scientific men and anthropologists, from aristocracy to commoner; all professional and social types could be found satiating their thirst for freakery. Some shows had ‘lady only’ booths; others offered half price tickets for children, while some publicity even encouraged teachers to bring their pupils. The freak show was often a respectable event, therefore, promoted as an educational and edifying experience.

The freak show thrived in the UK and USA as leisure was increasingly commercialised. Although this reached its zenith in the late nineteenth century (and continued into the twentieth) the desire for cheap entertainment had begun much earlier. Since at least the medieval ages, wakes and fairs had provided popular amusement at seasonal sites. But the gradual move from an agrarian-based society to an urbanised, industrial one facilitated the rise of formal entertainment institutions in which freaks were displayed.

The demand was certainly there: the rise of a new middle-class with spare money and time were keen to observe the bizarre. Demand was bolstered in 1871 by the introduction of the Saturday half-holiday, which gave the working-class time to pursue cheap thrills after slaving away in the factories. New permanent entertainment institutions, coupled with a keen and available audience, made the freak show a powerful phenomenon.

But much like the ‘freak,’ their ‘shows’ were similarly pluralistic and malleable. Freaks could be viewed at music halls, variety theatres, seaside resorts, aquariums, zoos, pleasure gardens and popular museums. Chang the Chinese Giant was exhibited in London’s popular museum, The Egyptian Hall. Inside the Royal Aquarium, freaks and non-westerners (‘ethnographic exhibits’) could be viewed next to fish and marine animals. Placing these human exhibits next to inanimate objects and living animals was the ultimate debasement of their humanity.

It was this objectification of freaks that justified their display in multiple venues. It was not just formalised or permanent sites that freaks could be seen. In the early part of the century, you could view freaks in their rented rooms or ‘commodious apartments’, as the publicity commonly stated. When Daniel Lambert, England’s original fat man, came to London to exhibit himself in 1806, he rented a room at 53 Piccadilly, London, and charged a shilling for visitors to enter.

Freaks could also be spotted at temporary ‘penny gaffs,’ which were short theatrical entertainments often performed at public houses or in small rooms and popular amongst the lower classes. Additionally, freaks were often displayed in ‘show shops’, which were unused storefronts easily transformed into exhibition sites. This famously occurred in the case of the Elephant Man, who was being shown in a rented shop on the Whitechapel Road in 1884.

Travelling fairs and circuses provided another site to stare at the freak. At Hull Fair, the largest travelling fair in the United Kingdom in the 1890s, five fat women were on display, which checked Henry Morley’s contemporaneous assertion that the British had ‘recovered’ from its ‘taste for monsters’ by 1859. Indeed, travelling fairs continued to thrive for most of the twentieth century, marking them as important sites for the display of freakery.

In sum, these sites were both permanent and temporary spaces. While developments in commercialised leisure helped institutionalise the freak show, less formalised sites continued to present the freak. These human oddities were subject to a construction process, which involved both showmanship narratives and historically situated social and cultural forces. As Robert Bogdan concluded in his seminal study on Freak Shows, ‘the ‘freak’ is a frame of mind, a set of practices, a way of thinking about and presenting people’— a process which involved the dialectic of bodily abnormality, theatricality and social perception.