He bounces onto the stage, blond hair sprayed into a 5-inch Mohawk. He's a little dude, about as tall as a trash can, and he doesn't have any arms, just hands sprouting directly from his shoulders. He clutches a microphone in one and a screwdriver in the other. His dark eyes, painted with makeup to look as if they're crying blood, dance around the props and towering speakers that mark the periphery of the stage, but his gaze never touches on the Diamond Ballroom crowd.
That was Bryce "The Govna" Graves' job. Moments ago, Graves occupied this same space, locking eyes with as many audience members as possible as he introduced them to Hellzapoppin, his touring freak show. "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls," Graves had said, his carnival barker's voice tripping musically along, "I guarantee that you will give praise to your creators that you yourself were born normal, as this is a luxury this first performer will never know.
"Ladies and gentlemen, he stands 3 foot 3 – yeah! – and has hands where arms should be. Please put your hands together – because he can't! – for the world-famous Penguin Boy!"
And out he came, racing onto the bright stage as Buckcherry's anthem to cocaine abuse, "Lit Up," began pumping from the speakers. Now Penguin Boy – 24-year-old Jason Brott – growls a few curse-laden pleasantries before getting down to business.
"Bryce ... won't let me get high on cocaine, so I'm just gonna have to shove this ... screwdriver in my face," he says, as if those are his only options. "WHO WANTS TO SEE IT?"
Bryce "The Govna" Graves swings a sledgehammer at the concrete block on Zamora's stomach. Zamora awaits the blow while resting on the pointy ends of a bed of swords.
Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman
Everyone, of course. That's why we're here. About 250 of us, including some children, have endured hours of shrieking warm-up bands and smoky air while waiting for Graves to start his show. It's after 11 p.m. in Oklahoma City. Our ears are ringing. We're ready to see something crazy.
Penguin Boy grips the screwdriver's handle with his teeth while he slips a condom over the metal tip. He grasps the handle again, turns his head toward the microphone. "Wait a minute, wait a minute," he says. "Do you really want to see me do this?"
The crowd howls. Behind me, a man yells: "DO IT!"
So he does. Penguin Boy ducks his head toward his right hand and slips the screwdriver into his right nostril. It slides in up to the handle, seemingly without resistance. From a theatrical standpoint, it's a bit of a bust. Without arms, Penguin Boy can't pull off any dramatic flourishes, and he doesn't grunt with exertion or cry out in pain. Nobody faints. Nobody looks away. Some folks further back in the audience don't seem to realize anything happened.
Still, Penguin Boy makes the most of it. He moves around the stage, letting people see that he does, in fact, have a common household tool buried in his nasal cavity. Then he pulls the screwdriver out, and the condom remains in his nose. "Looks like there's something stuck," he says. "Hold on. Let me get it out for you." He inhales sharply, and the prophylactic disappears inside his skull. He tilts his head back, looking up at the ceiling, and then – puff, puff, puff – the condom emerges from his lips, inflating like a balloon. After a moment, he plucks it from his mouth and tries to throw it at the crowd. It doesn't travel far, but it doesn't have to. The journey it has made already – from screwdriver to nose to mouth – is far enough, and the audience is screaming for more.
Graves watches from the wings, dabbed in makeup and wearing a top hat set at a jaunty angle. His eyes are intent, focused. This show is his baby, and its first few steps have been stumbling.
The trouble started in Dallas, where Graves lived until ... well, until today, actually. He'd wanted to arrive in Oklahoma City yesterday so he'd have time to promote the show. He and the performers would head out to local clubs, do a few tricks, pose for some photos and hopefully get some word-of-mouth advertising going. But the carburetor went out on the tour bus, delaying their departure.
No matter. They'd just head out early in the morning. Except ... Graves hadn't finished moving his belongings into storage, and while he was helping Graves, the road manager crashed through the porch floor and sliced his leg open all the way to the bone. Taking him to the hospital delayed them again.
They finally rolled into town a few hours ago, unloading their gear as the opening band prepared to take the stage.
Graves, 37, formed Hellzapoppin in January 2009 after years spent managing mainstream performers, working on a television show and serving as co-owner of the Brothers Grim traveling sideshow. The latter venture aimed to recreate the look and feel of century-old carnivals, a conceit largely absent from Graves' current show.
"This is more of a modern-day rock sideshow, if you will," he says. "I've always been about underground art and music and the independent scene, everything you can think of. ... The ultimate goal is to become like an independent, underground Cirque du Soleil."
Freak shows were staples of traveling carnivals from the 1800s until well into the 20th Century. Some shows included burlesque dancers, and all carried a whiff of the forbidden. People were paying, after all, to gawk at those who, through accident of birth or conscious choice, eschewed conformity and embraced exhibitionism, and if the whole thing seemed somehow sinful, that's because it often was.
History is replete with tales, some probably apocryphal, of abused freaks: deformed children sold by their parents to promoters, performers beaten or prostituted or paid little or nothing. The latter half of the 1900s witnessed a decline in the number of sideshows as disability advocates decried them as exploitative and communities enacted measures to block performances. Since 1992, however, when the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow became a runaway success at the Lollapalooza music festival, freak shows have enjoyed a renaissance, and heavy metal acts have replaced carnivals as the sideshows' constant companions. The marriage has been mutually beneficial: The freaks gain steady employment and rock star cachet, and bands get compelling opening acts that appeal to diverse crowds.
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Graves' child, Hellzapoppin, was born of that marriage. Many of his performers, including Zamora the Torture King and The Lizardman, were part of Rose's sideshow, and most have traveled with metal festivals such as Ozzfest, Van's Warped Tour or the Family Values Tour. For Graves, whose great-grandfather was a concert pianist and whose grandmother was a vaudeville dancer, the freak show is a chance to build on his family's legacy and perhaps surpass it. He hopes to turn it into a cottage industry: a traveling show, a television series, a roadside attraction between Dallas and Austin, Texas.
For sure he wants to make money, both for himself and for his performers. But he says it's not all business, and I believe him. I've seen him interact with Penguin Boy, who lived at Graves' house for weeks before the tour kicked off. At different times, Graves has stooped to listen to Penguin Boy's whispers, teased him about women and watched him silently, lips set in a gentle, caring grin. Their bond seems familial.
"We're all best friends," Graves says of the troupe. "We all love each other."
It ain't easy being freaky.
Penguin Boy is a "born freak," in industry parlance. He has TAR syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that made him anemic and prevented his arms from developing. Being able to shove a screwdriver up his nose or spinning rapidly with ice blocks attached to his earlobes has little to do with his birth defects, though; over time, he has turned himself into a "made freak," a blockhead, to be precise.
"When I was little, I would always be in the hospital," he tells me in the green room backstage, "so they always put tubes down your nose and down your throat – breathing tubes and stuff. I kind of put two and two together with my anatomy. 'If they can put tubes in my nose, I wonder what else I can put in my nose?'"
Most of his Hellzapoppin colleagues perform similar stunts. Zamora the Torture King, who tortures only himself, eats lightbulbs, jumps on broken glass, lies on a bed of swords and impales himself with skewers shoved through his arms or jaw. The Lizardman pushes a running power drill into his nostrils and twists an enormous corkscrew through his mouth and nose. By comparison, Lady Diabla's sword swallowing seems almost tame, although it's among the more dangerous acts.
Lady Diabla swallows a 27-inch sword as the Oklahoma City crowd cheers. It's a dangerous stunt. One slip-up, and it's off to the emergency room.
Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman
"You have to dull down your gag reflexes," says Diabla (real name Alexandra Kaminski), 23. "You have about three. There's the taste. Some people gag on the taste of metal. Then there's the back of your throat. Then there are a couple sphincters you have to get through. Yeah, sphincters. Once you get past those, posture is everything. If you're not perfectly straight, everything perfectly relaxed, you can puncture your esophagus and all the other organs."
Diabla, who was named one of Las Vegas' most beautiful people in 2008, is a tattooed blonde who's laced so tightly into a corset it's amazing she can draw breath. She didn't plan on becoming a freak; she was going to be a mortician. Five years ago, just as she was about to enter mortuary school, she decided she wasn't ready for a normal life. So she learned to embrace the endorphin rush that accompanies pain – walking on the edges of sword blades, being suspended in the air by hooks pushed through her flesh. Her tongue is split like a snake's, and her dimples are actually scars from the skewers she forces through one side of her face and out the other.
"Some people meditate" before using a skewer, she says. "I just shove it through."
“It hurts?” I ask.
"Definitely, definitely," she says. "But not as much as a real job."
In 2006, back when Zamora (real name Tim Crisland), 46, had a stage show in Vegas, doctors in an ABC News report theorized that a genetic mutation had left him immune to pain: He and a child who was examined "can tell when something is hot or cold or when some object gently touches their face, but neither recoils from a sharp poke in the eyeball."
Zamora says he feels pain; he just doesn't let it control him. He's a contemplative fellow, lean and ascetic, garbed in simple dark cotton clothes and split-toed ninja shoes. Shoulder-length graying hair frames a worn, rawboned face that inclines more toward thoughtful scowls than glittering smiles. He looks like someone who has known pain, gobs of it. He's also the only one on the tour who doesn't accept the label of "freak."
"That was used in sideshows for someone who was a human anomaly," he says. "I've never been that. Physiologically, I've got the same body as anyone else."
The difference between him and the rest of us, he says, is mental. From an early age, he viewed pain responses as learned behavior and chose to adopt stoicism. He studied pain management and spontaneous healing and believes he has trained his body to repair itself rapidly.
"A doctor in California gave me a series of shocks," he says. "I reacted to it, and they were able to measure how much pain my body was experiencing. Each time they shocked me, I was able to absorb more. I was able to build up my tolerance three or four times so that I was taking much more than a so-called normal person could."
The Lizardman seems the exact opposite of normal.
Like Diabla, he has a split tongue, but that's about the least of his modifications. Since 1993, Lizardman (real name Erik Sprague), 37, has spent 700 hours being tattooed, mainly with green ink. "FREAK" is inked on his chest, but most of his tattoos, which cover his body, resemble snake scales. Teflon "horns" above his eyes complete the reptilian look.
I ask the obvious – "Why do this to yourself?" – and immediately wish I hadn't. Lizardman is smart, vulgar and opinionated, and he has no patience with the question. His answer, condensed by about 1,000 words, is simply: Why not?
It strikes me that a vast gulf exists between our competing questions. On my side – Why? – are my wife, family, friends, coworkers and neighbors, folks who work regular jobs, pay their mortgages, save for retirement, watch football on Saturdays, have polite dinner parties, take their vitamins and try to get plenty of rest. On his side – Why not? – are the freaks, the risk-takers, the people who see society's obligations and responsibilities as options, not requirements.
Why would you stick a skewer through your face? Why would you make yourself look so different that people stare? Why would you give up everything to travel the country, not knowing what's past the next bend?
For a moment, I can see myself crossing that gulf. The pain isn't appealing, but the freedom is. I can't count how many times I've wanted to keep going past my exit on the highway, driving on and on until I run out of money for gas, then working just long enough to fill another tank. I'd adopt a new persona – The Amazing Raymondo, perhaps, or Wordman. I could cover my body with tattooed sentences, excerpts from great works of literature. I'd stay up late every night, make bad choices. Sure, I'd have to learn to like metal music, but I could do that. Wordman loves metal. It's Ken who doesn't. Ken's the stick in the mud. Ken's the one who ...
... who wouldn't last a single day on the road.
As soon as the thought occurs to me, I know it's true. I couldn't leave my wife, job, home and dogs. I don't want to. Confronted with the opportunity, few would choose to abandon all that's familiar to pursue applause and an uncertain future. These people cut themselves, stab themselves. Each time they perform, they risk serious injury, even death, yet most don't have medical insurance. They live in an old jail bus, breathing each other's stale breath and trying to sleep over the rumble of the wheels and others' snoring. There's no privacy, nowhere to escape to when the forced togetherness turns sour. I find myself thinking about something Zamora said: "Being able to do laundry is a very exciting thing. Things you take for granted when you're sedentary become complete pleasures on the road."
Doing laundry ... exciting? Holy cow, man, count me out. I'm not willing to trade my current life for one without a real bed but with dirty undies. That's not my kind of freedom.
When the show ends, I hang out with the freaks backstage for awhile. I've been with them several hours now. I'm tired. It's past my bedtime. I watch as they drink liquor, smoke pot. Lizardman and Penguin Boy flirt with Diabla, twisting her arm and tickling her as she cries, "I need an adult! I need an adult!" But adulthood seems far from here. Adult themes, yes. Adult responsibility, not so much.
I say my goodbyes and smile as they board their bus.
I've never felt so old.
Master of ceremonies Bryce "The Govna" Graves closes the show in the early morning hours of Dec. 12.
Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman