Thursday, March 03, 2011


Life’s like a movie, write your own ending. Well, that’s what Kermit The Frog sang anyway back when The Muppet Movie first came out. But even though Ol’ Kermie was just a bunch of green felt with some guy’s hand up his posterior, I kind of took his saying to heart anyway. Which means, believe it or not, that this whole mash-up of bad movies, cult cinema, and Catholicism isn’t just some shtick I keep up for the Internet. There are actually plenty of moments during my day to day routine when I find myself viewing life through a pair of stained glass 3-D spectacles as well. And it happens enough that I thought I would share some of those instances where the movies seem to collide with my reality. (I won’t say it’s life imitating art because, let’s face it, you can’t really call too many of the movies I watch “art”.) To get the ball rolling, let’s start with 1981’s The Funhouse.

On the surface, this Tobe Hooper directed creep-fest is just another slasher movie. You’ve got a group of teenagers who attend a local fair and hit on the idea of staying in the funhouse overnight for a bit of sex and drugs (but no rock and roll, they have to keep things quiet, you know). Unfortunately, while roaming about the unusually huge corridors of the ride, the kids inadvertently witness the hideously deformed son of the funhouse’s owner commit a murder. And when the teens accidentally reveal their presence, the father sends his boy to track them down and finish them off. Pretty standard slasher stuff.

What makes The Funhouse rise a little above average for the genre is the setting. Fairs are weird places, or at least they’ve always seemed that way to me. As a kid, I was especially a bit spooked (and fascinated) by the sideshow attractions. You know the ones; the two-headed calf, the tattooed marvel, the double bodied girl. And they were always being incessantly hoisted on you by the amplified voices of barkers calling out “ALIVE, ALIVE, ALIVE!” as you walked by. And if you were there at night, the whole experience was even more dreamlike and surreal thanks to sensual overload of the smells, the lights, and the strange auditory mélange of screams and laughter. The Funhouse captures all of that perfectly and it gives the movie a real visceral sense of place, especially during the scenes where the kids wander the midway amidst booths full of the kind of people your mother warned you about.

Alas, for better or worse, sideshow attractions all but disappeared over the past decade or two. I suppose modern sensibilities just found them too demeaning to man and animal alike. Until this year, that is. This year, as my family walked towards the fairgrounds, my ears were treated to a sound they hadn’t heard for ages. “ALIVE, ALIVE, ALIVE!” And there it was, right as we came through the gate…

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For a moment I was a kid again. If only it had been nighttime, the moment would have been perfect. And if only there had been a gigantic lumbering geek in a Frankenstein Monster mask, it could have been a scene right out of The Funhouse. Still, it was great to see the sideshow back. And I’m proud to say my 8-year old son demanded we see the Giant Rat before doing one single thing else at the fair. That’s my boy.

Now, of course, once we paid our admission and went in to take a peek, it goes without saying that we didn’t see the vicious cat-eating creature depicted on the banners. (I love midway art, by the way. One of my most prized coffee table books is Weedon & Ward’s Fairground Art.) No, instead of one of nature’s most fierce killing machines, we got this…

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Quite a pleasant looking fellow actually. Now I’m sure some of you good Catholic boys and girls out there recognize this ferocious beast as the capybara, the largest rodent in the world typically found along waterways in South America. But for those of you who aren’t familiar with the capybara, you should become so, because… we get to eat this thing on Fridays during Lent.

As legend has it, approval was given by the Vatican sometime way back when to eat capybaras on days of abstinence because the beasts spend so much of their time in the water that they don’t really qualify as forbidden warm blooded land mammals. (Notice the little guy above has a nice dipping pool right next to him for when he starts to feel dry.) The truth behind that claim, however, is a little fuzzy. An article entitled Personal Narrative of the Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804 which appeared in a publication called The Port Folio in 1821 mentions Jesuit missionaries in Venezuela considering the capybaras to be aquatic creatures. And there is supposedly a reference in a 1974 book by Eduardo López de Ceballos in which he claims his great-great-grand-uncle traveled to Italy sometime in the 18th century and obtained a Papal decree declaring the capybara suitable for Lenten tables. Unfortunately, nobody seems to be able to find the decree, so maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t. Either way, it’s easy to see why folks like Jimmy Akin are skeptical. But Papal decree or no, the standing custom is that during Lent, if you’ve had all the popcorn shrimp from Captain D’s you can stand for one season, then it’s perfectly acceptable to have a capybara burger as a substitute.

Regardless of what you put in your mouth on Fridays during Lent, though, be it a slice of cheese pizza or a slab of giant water rat, the point is to remember why you gave up your regular menu to begin with. As the Catechism reminds us, "The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church's penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works)". Sadly, that “concept of penance, which is one of the fundamental elements of the Old Testament message, is something we have increasingly lost.” Pope Benedict XVI said recently. “People somehow wanted to say only positive things. But the negative things do exist: that is a fact. The fact that one can change and allow oneself to be changed through penance is a positive gift. The early Church viewed it in this way also. It is imperative now really to start over in the spirit of penance.”

In the above trailer for The Funhouse, the voiceover ominously declares the freakish son in the movie to be “not in the image of his father”. But in a certain sense, that’s kind of true of all of us, as our sin deforms our souls and makes us not in the image of our heavenly Father. So maybe this Lent, we can join in with Pope Benedict and put the emphasis of the season back on penance so that we, and the Church as a whole, can experience the conversion of heart we so desperately need in order to conform ourselves to the image of Christ and truly be ALIVE, ALIVE, ALIVE! At least that’s what I’m going to try anyway.

Although I may find some other way than eating rat burgers to do it.


Anonymous said...

If you ever get the chance to go to San Antonio, Tx, there's a museum there you've just got to see. It was the private collection of a wealthy guy fascinated by circuses--original posters, Ton Thumb's carriage and a mouldering piece of his wedding cake, all kinds kinds of stuff from before the merger of Barnum and Bailey. Maybe I've mentioned it before? Anyway, stuffed in a corner is the fabulous collection of original photos of human sideshows, AKA circus freaks, including the original of the famous "Siamese twins". They are I.D.'d pretty well, including what medical conditions they're thought to have had.

I saw this as a kid in the 70s and early 80s, and I found the photos the most interesting thing. Almost all the subjects are looking directly into the camera & the signs and promotional stuff is usually outside the frame; the effect to me seemed to emphasize their humanity rather than contradict it.

I'll see if I can get a link.
Xena Catolica

Anonymous said...

It's the Hertzberg collection; the original building deteriorated and it's now housed in another Tx museum. Info. about all the U.S. circus & related museums in the U.S. here:

Xena Catolica

EegahInc said...

That's a great link. I've got family in Houston, so I can always pretend I'm coming out to see them and run by this place. Thanks.

Enbrethiliel said...


My first sideshow involved a "mermaid" who could drink Coca-cola under water. =P We used to have lots of those, too, but they didn't exploit people who looked different as much as try to pass off normal looking people as "freaks." One was enough for me.

Now I feel like reading that copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes that has been sitting on my "To Be Read" shelf.

On another note . . . I don't think I could eat a capybara.

EegahInc said...

No, I don't think I could eat a capybara either unless I was starving. The one I took a picture of looks more like something you'd pet on the head and throw a biscuit to every now and then.

Speaking of "freaks", and knowing you like horror, if you ever want to read a book that will disturb you greatly, read Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. It's about a family of purposely created sideshow attractions who spiral into destruction because they have no clue what real family and real love is.

MissJean said...

The only "freak" I ever saw was a semi-truck that carried a preserved carcass of a baby blue whale. It was awesome, particularly since I had never seen a whale before. :)

If you don't like capybara, I suggest you take advantage of the Archdiocese of Detroit's standing dispensation to eat muskrat on Fridays of abstinence. There's no trace of the original documentation, but the Archbishop made it official in 2002.

EegahInc said...

"I suggest you take advantage of the Archdiocese of Detroit's standing dispensation to eat muskrat"

Muskrats? Great, I'm old enough to have that Captain & Tenille remake of Muskrat Love stuck in my head now. Time to go scour my brain!