more on carnivals from an “urban cultural anthropologist”

from “Inside The Live Reptile Tent: The Twilight World Of The Carnival Midway” by Bruce Caron (text) & Jeff Brouws (photos)

“[Sideshow freaks’] lives were tracked with the same ardor that fans would later show for Hollywood’s own freaks: its movie stars. For it takes a parellel heroic to live with either deformity or celebrity in an age of advanced conformity.[…] The freak show’s spectacle of human diversity- from physical deformity to ethnographic titillation- fed a voyeuristic hunger in the assembled crowd[…] raised on a daily diet of God-fearing normality.”


“The American carnival midway has always shown us to be both better and worse than we imagined, at once bolder and less clever. It responds to who we are when are are not putting on our carefully managed personas. It offends us only when it shows us more than we want to see.

“The carnival midway beckons us from our sequestered modern lifestyle, challenges us to give in to our physical urges and the thrill of vertiginous flight.[…] It is not just some low-rent Disneyland, but a vestige of more serious games, and of times past (and pastimes) when the self was determined more directly by physical challenges. Here is also the province of the bizarre, of the giant rats and fun-house mirrors. The tragic and the erotic share equal billing in the show.

“The midway takes the fetishes with which we surround ourselves and pushes them into grotesque relief. One of the last fun-dangerous places we can encounter, it saves us from modernity’s empty promises of personal safety, which have lost their significance in the face of the omnipresense of media violence. While it flounders today in tawdry obscurity, we must not lose sight of the midway, for it teaches us fearlessness.”


“Today, even more than in the early part of the twentieth century, our lives surround us with safety nets that let us forget where the dangerous boundaries lie.[…] There are finalities around us we need to see. Curiously, at the same time[…] an impersonal world of violent spectacles is brought into our homes. Daily we are presented with televised visions of violence, inhumanity, and war, all happening somewhere else to people we have never met.[…]

“No wonder it seems that we’ve lost the means to find the far edge of our own emotions and abilities and so shrink back further into the comfort of feeling and trying less than we might. Apart from the sudden terror of crime and car crashes, we encounter so few direct challenges to our bodies and emotions that two new fears are born: a fear of risk more profound than risk itself, and a dread of spontaneous emotional expressions.[…]

“But when we tackle carnival risks, we signal a desire to strengthen our own emotions, and we gain an awareness of both our vulnerability and our invincibility. Taking a chance at the carnival is a small first step toward knowing where and when to take other chances, how to laugh when the game is lost, and that there is always another chance to win.”


“Crashing and careening into one another had its own curative powers. For a kid, bandied and thrown about by the whims and attitudes of the adult world, these brief moments at the bumper cars’ controls were a catharsis for youthful frustrations. Thirty-five cents spent on this ride surely beats a seventy-five-dollar visit to the therapist today.” (Jeff Brouws, “Notes From The Photographer”)

One response to “more on carnivals from an “urban cultural anthropologist”

  1. Glad you liked it!

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