In a recent article we discussed daredevils and circus performers as those who vest their lives in tempting death.
Reflecting back on my experiences with circuses, I realize circuses are
sold as entertainment salves for children, not adults. If circuses are
for children, why then, are some of the scariest things you can see in
your waking life performed as entertainment for immature eyes that only
see the act and not the preparation?
I won’t get into the animal cruelty of circuses or why some adults have a childhood fear of clowns
that still haunts them today, but I will wonder what children must
think while watching a trembling high wire act, the flame-eating
bearded lady and the overabound muscle man who eats nails and bends
iron bars around his neck.
are universal and I realize this “Danger by Dollar” for profit is not
limited to America. You can frighten young children in Russia, too:
Poland also celebrates the universal fear in circuses:
I was seven-years-old I attended a circus. I watched, open-mouth in a
silent scream, as “The Chinese Knife Twins” – both dressed in sequined
baby blue jump suits that sparkled in the spotlight — took long knives
and placed the handle-end in their mouths. Then one twin mounted the
other and did a handstand on the other twin’s shoulders.
Then they took the point of each of their knives and balanced
knife-tip-to-knife-tip. There were no strings or wires. Neither twin
used their hands.
One twin was balancing atop the other at knifepoint!
One slip and each knife would plunge into the other twin’s throat
resulting in a quick and bloody death in front of us all.
When a younger friend leaned over and whispered in my ear behind a
cupped hand, “Let’s try that later” — and I saw he wasn’t joking —
the fear rose a second time because I knew neither of us had access to
knives that long and sharp.
I was terrified watching “The Chinese Knife Twins” and the experience
still holds me today. I remember not breathing hoping knives would not
slip and ruin the circus.
I realize now my reaction was precisely the kind of whole-body
revulsion the circus was hoping to create in children just like me, but
at what greater cost, and why must the children pay the balance due in
the extended tax of an ongoing emotional turmoil?
When did terrifying children become the intention of the ticket takers
and the sideshow barkers and the parents who are entrusted with
protecting their offspring from the unreal, but very real, dangers of
watching the tempting of death live-and-in-person in exchange for a
There were two elements to the circuses in my childhood – a chance to see the animals and to escape into a magical world of “impossible” acts and feats of daring and skill – such as acrobats and trapeeze artists, magicians and clowns.
We knew the animals and the humans taking part trained hard, we knew they took calculated risks.
I remember my father explaining *risks* to me as a young child. He explained that we took them every time we drove a car, crossed the road, climbed a tree. He then went on to explain about riding a horse and how by practice and learning I could increase my skills and reduce my risk.
People will always seek the different, the dangerous and the bizzare – either to marvel at the participants skill ( Forumula One Racing) – the Guiness Book of Records ( for the biggests, fastest, slowest and grossest of them all ) – or in some cases to define themselves – to find themselves and their edges and limits of endurance – or even just to look and then go WOW – thank god I am *normal*.
I have amongst my close circle of friends two men who have served their time in the circus – they have shared the tricks of their trade over the dinner table ………. illusion and sleight of hand are their tools of choice. They both played with and eaten fire and play with *explosions* – one of them still teaches fire play and fire eating.
One started with the elephants – worked his way up to trapeeze, then bed of nails, magic tricks and levitation – he then moved on to the stunt industry.
Two of the previous whip cracking world record holders are active both in the entertainment and the adult industry. They train relentlessly.
And the next generation – ie my children are there too. My eldest daughter throws fire poi – and one of my fondest memories of them altogether is when they were all playing and displaying their fire poi skills together in an impromptu performance.
For us ( and I include them ) there are far worse dangers out there – we see them on our television sets every day.
I feel sad that your childhood visits to the circus has left you with such negative impressions – I am sure that is not what was intended at all.
What calculated risks are children supposed to divine from attending a circus? It’s okay to sleep on a bed of nails? Fire eating is something to be imitated?
It’s hard to directly imitate a racecar unless you have access to one — it is much simpler to find some nails and matches on your own.
I appreciate you revealing your circus ties. I’m sure we won’t be changing each other’s minds on this matter any time soon.
Children ask questions – how do they do that? – how is it possible ? – or even I want to do that ? The answer lies in how these questions are answered.
We knew matches, knives, nails were dangerous – that had already been instilled in us – we knew they were not for playing with.
Just reading back over your initial post I do however realise we were three or four years older than you – which might have made considerable difference to our questions, understanding and reactions.
My point is circuses are selling the idea that tempting death is fun and entertaining and not inherently dangerous. The historic posters in the article reveal that truth. NASCAR and Magic Shows do not have that same intention.
Circuses are like Stephen King’s horror novels or Coast to Coast with George Noory filled with its tales of the end of the world, the chupacabra, and alien abductors, Mars rock faces, or alien controlled “shadow governments.”
We like to be scared by the strange and unusual.
Watching the guy on the high wire risk his life produces the same kinds of fear that can be felt staying up way too late reading a Stephen King novel on a cold winter night alone in a drafty old house. Or, listening to Coast to Coast at 3 a.m. while suffering from insomnia.
Circuses provide the thrills and chills in a way that probably produce less nightmares (clown phobias excepted) than would a late night listening session of Noory’s radio show.
There’s one difference in the example you provide between a book and a high wire act. You can close the book and turn off the reality. If a circus performer falls from the high wire and is injured the real time event ceases to become fun and it is a reality from which there is no parental escape route for the child.
What’s the lesson to be learned in having a child watch a high wire act? Don’t try that at home? Admiring the tempting of death? To what end?
What is the lesson you hope the child takes away from the experience? Circus performers are careless with their lives? I should try that at home? I should admire someone who tempts death for a living? I pay people so I can see them almost not fall?
I don’t know what we get from bringing young kids to the circus.
I’ve always seen the circus as a cheap form of entertainment compared to other possible events. Often, kids get free admission to circuses with an adult ticket purchase.
Circuses have been around for ages — or at least from the dawn of Roman civilization, according to Wikipedia.
Maybe there’s something universal about the need to spend a few hours at the circus?
Are we culturally wired to want to view spectacles of extreme danger to produce some thrills and chills?
I remember visiting some circus highwire performers when I was in high school because they lived not too far from where I lived. They had a training center set up in their yard in Bloomington and would teach anyone interested how to fly through the air. I took pictures — I probably still have the negatives at my parents’ house — but I never had the desire to become a trapeze performer.
In fact, I saw on the net they were giving lessons to students at the alternative high school earlier this year:
Circuses fill some need that humans have.
Maybe we need the catharsis that fear can provide to make us feel better about the uncertainty that faces all humans and is often felt by children as they grow up?
I think parents need to realize young children should not attend circuses even though children are the core audience for the event.
Children under the age of 10 are really incapable of making meaningful and rational value judgments between reality and risk and imagination and tempting-death-as-entertainment.
I realize this is an unpopular position to take but I once again say the intent of a NASCAR race is to win the race, not to tempt death and the intent of the Magician is to make you disbelieve your eyes.
However, the circus daredevil’s purpose, intent, business-of-the-day, is to tempt death and in that temptation — in the name of entertainment — we cheapen life itself.
Circuses make tempting death fun and exciting and thrilling and I don’t think that is a good lesson for children to learn from their parents or society.
Yes, it is the very “kids, bring your parents and have them pay and you get in free” bribe against our better angels that bothers me so much about the innate tempting of death that gives a circus its buzz.
Is it a good buzz to show children such a cavalier attitude for life? Do we encourage children to become risk-takers? Or are we only numbing them to the possibility that life is swinging from a trapeze and never falling… we hope?
I’m not only asking questions about circuses — but of all daredevils in general — Evel Knievel was a childhood hero of mine. Why? Because he tempted death and lived to tell about it? There is no reason for a child to look up to a man like that but I did because he was breaking the laws of man and trying to cheat death. I think if you asked Evel today if he regrets the life he chose in jumping motorcycles for profit he would quickly recant the fame and semi-fortune he collected over his life and I know this because he has said as much as he tried to convince his son Robbie against following in his footsteps.
The Jackass movies are another ridiculous and dangerous form of entertainment — but just because a movie is available doesn’t mean it is appropriate or proper for people of any age.
I also think the high-speed chases we see on television from the helicopter view are just as damming in their prurient essence to encourage and celebrate the tempting of death over the public airwaves and against the public safety.
Boxing wasn’t enough of a temptation — through regulation and calm minds it became safer against death — and so Ultimate Fighting was created where the rules were thrown out and the object of the game became to hurt the other guy so much that he submits or cannot consciously fight back. Is that an appropriate tempting of death to teach our children to enjoy? There sure are a lot of young people watching the blood spatter and the eyes getting punched closed.
The glamorization of death-defying feats that could result in the death of the person shaking his fist (it’s usually guys who do these things) at death and innocent people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time has been happening with illegal motorcycle races.
Before major roadwork slowed traffic everywhere, there was a rash of motorcycle deaths on highways around Chicago. Guys racing each other on roads designed for a maximum speed of 80 MPH or so were routinely zipping in and out of traffic at 120+ MPH.
It wasn’t uncommon to turn on the news and hear about a motorcyclist on a Japanese rocket cycle running into the back of a stopped semi-truck or other horrific traffic accident.
These guys weren’t Harley dudes out for a Sunday ride. They wanted to push the envelope to the point that any mishap would result in there instant death from slamming into a car or the road at 100+ MPH.
Just as the circus inspired your friend to suggest a knife trick, our love of thrills sometimes leads people to want to try dangerous feats for themselves.
“There” should be “their” in the second to last paragraph. 🙂
My grammar OCD is kicking in today!
Hi Chris —
Where do the 120+ MPH rocket bikes find their inspiration to tempt death? Is it a natural desire? An innate intention? Or was the behavior somehow learned in childhood through modeling and imitation and perhaps even unwitting parental approval?
There is no other intent at 120 MPH than to tempt death and those who feel that need for a careless life cheapen life for the rest of us.
I wonder tempting death by riding a motorcycle 130 MPH is a way to “feel alive” in a society that is filled with stress and other things that often make people feel like they are are getting the short end of the bargain?
It could be that people are normally “wired” to avoid situations that threaten death, but somehow in our modern society, our “alarm system” has become corrupted and things that aren’t a big deal — reports, daily duties at the office, etc — are major stressors, while things that should induce great stress — the threat of dying if someone not paying attention changes lanes in front of your speeding bike — are seen as “liberating?”
I still say we should medicate the water supply! 🙂
I agree children are not born to want to tempt death and, if anything, they have an innate tendency to consciously avoid death and its teasing much in the same way animals innately fear fire:
If we need to tempt death because of boredom in our lives — something deep and awful is happening and I think we need more action than just medicating the water supply!
In the ancient days, humans had enough chances tempting death trying to survive and get through the days. Hunting wild animals or trying to stay out of the way of warlords and other mauraders burned off enough energy for most people. I don’t think the ancients sought out stimulation because it came their way everyday.
Today, the most excitment some people get is working on a spreadsheet or report.
Others might work in factories at repetitive and boring jobs.
It’s not like it was even 50 years ago when people would be more physical in their jobs and would rise with the sun and sleep when it set because of their long and hard days of backbreaking labor.
We have too much leisure time — which is a great thing! Some of us just need to figure out what to do with our free time.
It is telling, Chris, that so many of us that are bored hope to tempt the very life that bores us by ending it. What a modern existence we don’t want!
Here’s an interesting wondering about death and those who choose to tempt Niagra Falls:
I saw a story on my RSS news ticker about a child killing herself after copying something she saw in a movie.
It’s easy to forget that kids’ minds aren’t as developed as ours are and they need to know not to copy things they see performers do, whether in movies or at circuses.
I immediately thought of this post when I took a look at Yahoo News to see what was going on in the world today.
A featured AP photo showed a bear riding a motorcycle on a high wire with a woman suspended below.
There’s something very frightening when a performer’s life is entrusted to animals operating mechanical devices are only intended for human operation. Putting the whole thing on a highwire just increases the fear because it increases the odds something bad will happen as the bear traverses the high wire in a highly unnatural way.
Hi Chris —
Yes, the foul use of animals for entertainment in China is terribly cruel. They also had “boxing bears” as well.
As Count Leo Tolstoy said in 1903, “As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will always be war.”