‘Barcelona Freak show’, a journey to the dark side of the human condition

‘Barcelona Freak Show’ is published by Barcelona City Council and Viena Editores: A history of fairground booths and travelling shows, from the 18th century to 1939, by Enric H. March, a chronicle of the darker side of popular entertainment in Barcelona.

This is a journey to the dark side of the human condition, where marvels and monsters share space. A trip through a lost world, where deformity and otherness attracted the attention of audiences eager to experience extreme sensations, and where the exploration and discovery of the planet brought the ‘monster’ closer to home.

It is from this type of spectacle that the so-called “freak show” was born, named after the film Freaks, which was released in 1932 and featured characters presented as monsters or freaks, who suffered from obesity, rickets, hirsutism, dwarfism, gigantism, polycephaly, microcephaly, albinism, intersexuality, androgyny, bone malformations, had suffered amputations or had supernumerary body parts or joined bodies, such as Siamese twins.

What could be seen in a fairground booth, somewhere between the circus and a cabinet of curiosities, formed the shameful back room of the affluent shows offered at the theatre or the opera, while at the same time being the convex mirror in which the whole community saw itself reflected, explains writer and actor Xavier Theros in the foreword to the book.

Media hype and moral debate 

In this history of travelling shows in the Catalan capital, Enric H. March explores a field that is difficult to define, one of great aesthetic richness that provides much food for thought, where circus skills, animal and human zoos, magic lanterns, phantasmagoria, dioramas and exhibitions of monsters were all intermingled. A mix of minor genres that constitutes the story of a form of urban leisure that was an alternative to the official model, and that in the 19th century attracted huge media attention and foreshadowed many of the moral debates that continue to the present day. The sight of a human being treated like a beast in a cage, exposing their deformities or being exhibited merely because they belonged to an ‘exotic’ people, sparked innovative controversies about the limits of what could be shown in public, and about the boundaries of good taste.

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