The fright stuff: The return of the freak show

Roll up! Roll up! The carnival freak show's back from retirement to shock and amaze, but all done in the best possible taste, says Jonathan Brown

Cleo the Girl in the Goldfish Bowl, the Headless Lady and the world-famous Zebra Man; all wholesome family entertainment, half a century ago. For the next 10 days, the British public's love affair with the bizarre will be indulged as some of the strangest acts gathered together in one place for 50 years draw back their satin curtains.

Also on stage at the Circus of Wonders in Blackpool's Winter Gardens are brassy Gloria, the Living Half-Lady, and her colleague The Mummy, who leans towards the sinister. All appear as part of the resort's Showzam 10-day festival of variety performance.

The macabre post-war sideshows are being staged for (in some cases) the first time since the 1960s. They are the remnants of a former fairground empire run by the 1930s fire-eater Jon Gresham, and have since been lovingly restored by a businessman, Jon Marshall, after he found them lying forgotten in a barn in the Yorkshire Wolds.

"It was a demanding life back then with a lot of travelling and very long hours," Mr Marshall said yesterday. "Jon Gresham's wife Pat always used to complain that she never knew whether she was going to be legless in Southend or headless in Margate."

The present-day Cleo, real name Emma Bateman, 23, from Middlesbrough, clearly enjoys her work. Although petite, she seems at 5ft2ins to be some way off the advertised height of 5ins needed to fit inside the goldfish bowl. (Cleo bewilders audiences by waving to them and running her hands over the interior of the glass, trying to get out.) She rejects speculation that it could be an optical illusion. "When I am in there I cannot hear anyone but I can see everyone's reaction; it's a lovely effect. People look so amazed they just can't believe I'm real. It's a great job. It's well paid and you get looked after and you travel the world for free, although it can get a bit chilly in my bikini."

Contrary to what many may think, the circus sideshow is a uniquely British invention, said Professor Vanessa Toulmin, of Sheffield University, who has curated the two-week weird-fest, part of a larger heritage and tourism programme directed by Visit Blackpool and funded by the North West Development Agency.

Many of the illusions are still based on the ghostly apparitions of a Victorian popular scientist, Professor John Henry Pepper, whose creations electrified the Royal Polytechnic when he first demonstrated them in 1862. But it was nearly a century before they were at their popular prime in the seaside resorts of 1950s Britain, eventually falling foul of the desire for increasingly mechanised, faster and noisier fairground experiences.

Yet their appeal remains undimmed, said Professor Toulmin. "There is an amazing magic about these acts. It is like they are from a world without cynicism, and even though people have grown used to CGI and highly complicated special effects they still want to see live shows."

When it comes to living theatre, Carnesky's Ghost Train, which opens this weekend at a permanent base in Blackpool, makes other allegedly scary locomotive rides seem about as daunting as the 17.45 from Waterloo. With real actors and some disarming special effects, Marisa Carnesky has created a genuinely unsettling burlesque with her jump-out-of-your-skin journey through a small country ravaged by war and peopled by stricken, grieving mothers. "Like a good horror movie, you could have a frightening and horrific entertainment that has real depth and emotional enjoyment for the audience," said Ms Carnesky, who also amazes as the Legendary Levitating Lady.

She said some sideshows might have been considered exploitative half a century ago, but they have mellowed. "Over time, they have become kitsch. You could say the Living Half-Lady is offensive to people with disabilities but you have to judge all these ideas in their history. They always were about sex and exploitation art but now we don't take them so seriously."

A museum of the macabre: Bizarre acts that live again

*Cleo the Girl in the Goldfish bowl: The five-inch floating apparition bamboozled five million people at its height in the 1960s.

*Yvette the Headless Lady: Maimed in a hideous train crash, the body of the lovely Yvette is kept alive with the miracles of modern science.

*The Living Half-Lady: Marooned on her stump, Bet Lynch lookalike Gloria laments the loss of her legs, now on display at another show in Margate.

*The Great Omi, The Zebra Man: Shell-shocked First World War Major Horace Ridley "endured 500 million needle-pricks" to create the horrific spectacle of the Zebra Man.

*The Mummy: Relive the terror of Dr Sidney Fairweather, whose discovery of an ancient Egyptian scroll caused a beautiful princess to become a terrifying Mummy.