11 Horrifying & Extremely Dangerous Circus Attractions From History

There is a reason that circuses and sideshows make their appearance every Halloween, and star in everything from horror movies to a season of American Horror Story: circuses are creepy. Old-fashioned circuses were also often dangerous, even dehumanizing, places to work. Acrobats, trapeze artists, sword swallowers, and others sometimes died during performances, while other creepy old circus attractions, like displays of oddities and human zoos, are considered to be completely unethical today. Read through this list of some of most deadly and disturbing circus acts from history.

  • Voyeurs Gathered To Gawk At Freak Show Performers

    Voyeurs Gathered To Gawk At Freak Show Performers
    Photo: simpleinsomnia / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Freak show attractions have inspired TV and movies, artwork, and of course, Halloween costumes, all in the vein of being fearful of what our eyes are not used to beholding. Individuals with various physical anomalies were at the forefront of circus sideshows, including the Bearded Woman, Lobster Boy, Camel Girl, and the conjoined ("Siamese") twins Cheng and Eng.

    While many freak show participants may have joined the mayhem willingly, reports exist detailing others who were tricked into joining, or abducted and forced into this exploitative business.

  • Deformed Fetuses And Other Oddities Were Displayed In Jars

    While the freak show provided audiences with living, breathing humans to gawk at, the oddities display offered jarred specimens of human fetuses, often with other examples of deformities and congenital disorders. While the practice of preservation reportedly dates back to the 1500s, the displays become popular as a sideshow attraction in the 1950s and '60s; however, given the diverse nature of laws throughout the country, traveling shows boasting this attraction often suffered retribution from law enforcement. Some even continuing the practice later with fake remains.

    A rather controversial attraction, the "pickled punks" have thankfully fallen by the wayside in the entertainment realm, but can often still be seen in research laboratories and museums.

  • Human Zoos Highlighted Cultural Differences In Horrifying Ways

    Human Zoos Highlighted Cultural Differences In Horrifying Ways
    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    While many circus attractions throughout history are simply creepy by today’s standards, the "human zoo" takes that to a new level. The human zoo is much like it sounds: humans put on display for entertainment. In the circus context, this attraction often included African individuals or indigenous people, caged and put on display like animals. This dehumanizing practice is a disturbing reminder of the attitudes and norms of the early 20th century.

  • Human Cannonballs Rocketed Themselves 100 Feet Through The Air

    Human Cannonballs Rocketed Themselves 100 Feet Through The Air
    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    An act built on trade secrets, the human cannonball is much like it sounds: a human maneuvers themselves into a cannon, and then is shot through the air, hopefully culminating in a safe landing over 100 feet away.

    Early “cannons” were primarily spring-powered, giving way later to compressed air to force the human projectile out of the tube and into the air. Pyrotechnics have also been used to add drama to the performance. As an act with a highly unpredictable nature, due to the high likelihood of both human and mechanical error, it’s not surprising that several human cannonball performers throughout history have sadly met their demise as a result of this performance. One of the earliest performers, Zazel, reportedly missed her landing and broke her back, and a recent performance in 2011 in which the safety net collapsed left the performer with severe injuries which ultimately ended in death.

  • Tight-Rope Walking Could Be A Deadly Endeavor

    Tight-Rope Walking Could Be A Deadly Endeavor
    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    First devised by the ancient Greeks, tight-rope walking became common in circus shows and included such mayhem as the Flying Wallendas, a family whose act revolved around a seven-person pyramid on a tightrope, and was performed without a safety net. Tragically, during one performance of this stunt, a fall caused two performers to die and a third to become paralyzed. Several other members of the Walenda family have also died in falls, including in 1978, when Karl Wallenda fell to his death while walking a cable strung between two high rises.

    These daring tasks of balance and endurance later became popular outside of the circus, as daredevils found new heights and locations to demonstrate their skill. Freddy Nock underwent one such challenge by walking more than a mile on a cable-car wire, almost 10,000 feet above sea level, without any safety measures aside from sheer will and balance (assisted by a trusty balance stick, as was common for this type of insanity).

  • Acrobats Performed Intricate And Dangerous Tricks 50 Feet Above The Ground

    In the early 20th century, acrobats performed astounding aerial stunts. The reported “Queen of Aerial Gymnasts,” Lillian Leitzel, performed feats 50 feet above the ground. "For her grand finale, she would grasp the ring with one hand and flip head over heels so rapidly that her arm would dislocate and then snap back into place with each turn." She performed this stunt for years, but in 1931, a piece of her equipment failed and she fell, dying from her injuries two days later.