We might think that the freak show died out more than 100 years ago, but it didn't. Increasingly, reality TV seeks out "freaks" to boost ratings in the unceasing war for audience share.
Our own insecurities drive today's reality 'freak shows'
Joseph Merrick, also known as the "Elephant Man", probably suffered from Proteus syndrome, a rare congenital condition resulting in abnormal skin and bone development. Merrick's condition made him a "star" on the human-oddity circuit in the 19th century: "Roll up, roll up, see the monstrous half-man, half-elephant!"
This was before the invention of disability discrimination acts, and when people commonly believed physical abnormality was a curse from God. Merrick was tragedy made man, his physical abnormality a source of burden and sorrow throughout his short 27-year life. But one man's bane is another man's boon, and Merrick was prized as a freak show exhibit. These exploitative carnival sideshows could make good money charging the public to gaze upon misfortune and physical oddity.
We might think that the freak show died out more than 100 years ago, but it didn't. Increasingly, reality TV seeks out "freaks" to boost ratings in the unceasing war for audience share. These shows have rekindled, and pander to, our desire to be shocked , awed and amused by freakish abnormality.
Today, however, it is less about physically exaggerated traits and more about psychological deviation. Gone are the bearded ladies and elephant men. Now, we marvel at personality disordered divas and the shamelessly uninhibited. Reality TV shows like Big Brother and The X Factor generate buzz by featuring outlandish individuals.
But the outlandishness and eccentricity of some of the unfortunates featured in these shows borders on pathological. It is objectionable that people with mental health problems are encouraged to parade themselves before audiences of millions. Vulnerable adults with psychological issues becoming sources of titillation for a freak show-hungry pubic.
But just why do so many of us like to watch the misfortune of others unfold? One answer might lie in what psychologists refer to as social comparison theory. This is an observation, supported by experimental evidence, that people feel better about themselves when they are encouraged to make self comparisons with people worse off or of lesser ability. So watching a deluded guy of subnormal intelligence botch a cover of Dionne Warwick's Walk On By is not only hilarious, it also gives us a sly self-esteem boost. Similarly, when a histrionic young woman performs acts of gross indecency on national TV, perhaps we enjoy the warm glow that comes from a personal sense of moral superiority.
So the freak show must go on, and today's audiences are as indefatigably desirous of the bizarre, extreme and ridiculous as ever. Conveniently, the "freaks" to supply this demand are in no shortage either. These willing volunteers queue for hours to audition for a shot at 15 minutes of fame. I can't help think that in the brilliant light of retrospection many of those who make it to the small screen will live to bitterly regret the episode. With hindsight they will claim the folly of youth, or temporary insanity as their defence. Imagine being the Walk On By guy, forever lampooned when people recognise you in public, your dreams irreparably lacerated on prime-time TV.
This whole situation was recently epitomised in an episode of The X Factor. Two teenage girls, Abby and Lisa, auditioned for the show with heads full of stardom and recording deals. The girls were obviously lacking in maturity and certain social skills. Furthermore, they were overcome by stage fright in front of a very hostile audience. Their performance was an absolute debacle, and within minutes the girls degenerated into arguing with the judges, the audience and each other.
The situation culminated in one of the girls punching the other in the face and storming off stage. Was this emotional meltdown cut from the show to preserve human dignity? Of course not. It became a national topic of conversation for at least a week, and the images went viral, played and replayed on small screens around the globe as the tale of two freakish teenage girls spread. The YouTube clip of their audition has had over seven million views.
Should the lure of fame or promise of cash be used to exploit vulnerable adults, encouraging them to act in ways damaging to their privacy and dignity? If Joseph Merrick, "the Elephant Man", were alive today and he wanted to audition for The X Factor as a possible escape from his impoverished existence, would we air it?
Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University