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Sword swallowing is one of the more dangerous acts still performed.

State Fair's "freak" shows evolved from spectacles of human oddity to illusion

Walk to the fringe of the State Fair's midway, past the Ferris wheel and the water gun games and the lemonade stand, and you'll find a large, colorful tent featuring a dozen painted signs reading "weird women" and "lizard man" and "circus oddities."

Standing on a platform in front of the tent are three females – called "barkers" or "outside talkers" – who look like burlesque dancers. One wears a live snake wrapped around her neck while another tries to lure a small group of people to go behind the flap.

A bit nervously, a few curious customers pay $5 in tickets and walk inside.

The 30-minute show run by World Of Wonders Sideshow isn't what it used to be – and yet it is. Some of the acts are real, many are hokey.

In general, this modern side show is appropriate for people of all ages, including young children. This might be somewhat disappointing to those seeking more of a thrill or a disturbing display – even though the family-friendly show is undeniably entertaining.

And a few of the acts really are impressive. The knife thrower really throws sharp knives at a young striped-stocking-wearing assistant– although he throws them only to her side, no longer around the outline of her body. Another performer manages to balance on a board that's atop a cylinder while juggling three clubs. And the flame eaters really do deep-throat the fiery batons, exposing their mouths and tongues to toxic, easily-absorbed fuel.

Undeniably, the crowd favorite is sideshow legend John "Red" Lawrence Stuart, the world's oldest performing sword swallower who claims that he does not use fake or roll-up swords. He also swallows – or "swallows" – a car axle.

Stuart also claims he really pounds a nail into his nostril during his "Human Blockhead" act.

"It's the quickest way to get iron in your system," he says.

But many of the acts are just plain cheesy. The headless woman, the spider woman and the dancing, four-legged lady are ridiculously executed and clearly aimed at wowing young children.

Luckily, the storytelling aspect of the classic sideshow remains alive and well because it adds a lot to the performance. Before unveiling the headless woman – obviously a trick with mirrors – a narrator tells the tale of her unfortunate accident, claiming she was a German fashion model who made the terrible mistake of driving drunk and got in an accident that sent her head reeling 50 feet.

He then produces a ball seemingly out of nowhere and throws it into the crowd to momentarily trick the audience into believing it's her decapitated noggin.

According to Robert Bogdan, who wrote the book "Freak Show," the Wisconsin State Fair has a strong history with such shows. In the 1920s and '30s, Bogdan writes, "State Fair freak shows reached huge proportions, especially in large, jam-packed state fairs like those in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio."

The term "freak" comes from the phrase "freaks of nature" because, years ago, many of the people involved in the traveling carnival show or circus were physically different humans, including those of very large or small stature, people with extraordinary diseases or conditions (conjoined twins, obese individuals, women with beards, men who dressed as women and heavily tattooed folks) or people with shocking performance abilities like fire eating, knife throwing, whip cracking and sword swallowing.

Modern carnival shows, for the most part, focus only on performance abilities and not human bodies. However, there has been some contemporary equivalents to the classic freak show like the British documentary series, "Body Shock."

Also, the "999 Eyes Freak show" was founded in 2005 and claims to be "the last traveling freak show in the United States." Unlike older shows, it portrays the people in a more positive light with the tagline "what's different is beautiful."

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