Attack of the killer clowns

Cole Moreton rides the Cyclone and meets the freaks of Coney Island - the original 'greatest show on Earth'

Koko the Killer Clown was making balloon animals and telling us how he had come to this, performing on a gloomy stage by the seaside at the dog end of the season. There were only half a dozen people watching in the decrepit building on Surf Avenue, but none could take our eyes off the four-foot dwarf in the smudged greasepaint, or the warning on his Charles Manson T-shirt: "Don't F*** With Chuck."

Koko the Killer Clown was making balloon animals and telling us how he had come to this, performing on a gloomy stage by the seaside at the dog end of the season. There were only half a dozen people watching in the decrepit building on Surf Avenue, but none could take our eyes off the four-foot dwarf in the smudged greasepaint, or the warning on his Charles Manson T-shirt: "Don't F*** With Chuck."

The little bundle of malice in a grey striped prison cap mumbled that he had been married once, until he caught "a gentleman" in bed with his wife. "I shot him in a particular part of his anatomy," he said. "Not his head." One stubby arm made a dismissive gesture towards his groin. "It was the only place I could reach."

Someone laughed, hesitantly, then shut up. Koko jumped off the small platform, twisted a sky-blue balloon into a phallic arrangement, and gave it to a young blond child whose parents looked uneasy. Then the clown was gone, giving way to the next act at Sideshows by the Seashore. The compere was a cowboy magician who hammered nails into his own head. He introduced a tall contortionist of stunning beauty, dressed all in black, who lay in a coffin-like box as steel blades were inserted, apparently, through her body. Later she danced with an albino python, and took its head in her mouth.

There are many strange things to be seen in America, wriggling in the dark underbelly beneath all that surface conservatism, and there are still few places better to see them than in Coney Island. Once it was the greatest amusement park in the world, attracting a million visitors every Sunday. Now it is an eerie place, haunted by the past, even when the sun shines and the boardwalk and beach are crowded. Some people go there for the remaining great rides, the Cyclone roller-coaster and the Wonder Wheel. Some bathe in the ocean, or watch beluga whales at the classy New York Aquarium. But for someone like me, who loves the manic intensity of fairgrounds and the melancholy tang of seaside towns out of season, and who was raised on the urban gothic fantasies of American comic books, a visit to Coney Island was a pilgrimage.

The resort is on the coast of Brooklyn, and easily reachable by subway from Manhattan as a day trip, but I crossed the East River to stay in a Victorian-era home in Flatbush, where bed and breakfast meant a level of care you just don't get at a boarding house in Blackpool. Pampered and prepared, I took the D train down to Coney Island, where Eak the Freak was waiting to perform.

Eak, a huge tattooed man, came on stage with his head covered by a black silk hood. He had chosen to transform himself into a freak, he said; and pulled off the mask to reveal a face decorated with tattoos of shooting stars, ringed planets, and other cosmic designs. People stared at him on the streets of Manhattan, he said. We did the same, having paid the price of admission.

"This is skin deep," said Eak, a huge fleshy man covered in designs, his clear eyes blazing. "I am human. I need to earn a living, like everybody else." Then he lay down on a bed of nails, and invited a couple from the audience to stand on his stomach, on a nailed platform. The man was muscular and his girlfriend not a lightweight. Both were nervous. When Eak rose afterwards his back was bleeding. He finished the act by sitting on an electric chair and lighting a flame with his tongue. "Can you imagine what my body looks like by October? Think of that next time you eat a McDonald's." None of us felt much like eating anything.

Much later, over a beer, Eak turned out to be a sensitive, articulate kind of freak, whose true calling was to write poetry. His father was a lawyer in Mexico City. When paying customers came into the room he pulled the black hood back over his head.

"We like to think this is the national centre of American Bizarro," said Dick D Zigun, the Yale graduate, playwright, lecturer and performer, who started a charitable theatre group called Coney Island USA 20 years ago. "What we are doing is a little bit lecherous, inebriated, adult. This is not Disneyland."

They used to call it honky-tonk, the sexy, sassy, sleazy spirit that danced among the crowds when Coney Island was at its peak. The rich and famous found the place first, heading out of New York City to eat clam chowder and swim in full-length woollen suits. Dickens and Walt Whitman were among them. Hotels, race tracks and amusement parks were built, and the world's first roller-coaster, the Switchback Railroad, opened in 1884. The first hot-dog was served there, too.

By the 1920s, when the new subway brought the working classes out of the city, the beaches were so crowded that there was no room to sit down. Many of the visitors were immigrants who had seen the Wonder Wheel and Parachute Drop rising above the shoreline as their liners approached the Verrazano Narrows. Coney Island was the Nickel Empire, where shooting galleries, freak shows and rides offered cheap, sensational diversions. Barkers, hustlers, fortune-tellers and prize-fighters demanded attention, the neon lights were dazzling and the smell of fried food was overpowering.

After the Second World War the neighbourhood went downhill fast: some of the parks went bust, others burned down mysteriously. The shanty towns were cleared and replaced with ugly apartment blocks that made the coastline look like down town Moscow, which must have been a comfort to the many Russian immigrants a few stops down the line at Brighton Beach, otherwise known as Little Odessa.

Coney Island became a nightmare, known more for guns and arson than for good times. The desolate parks and burned-out roller-coasters were a perfect setting for the 1979 gang odyssey movie, The Warriors. The sideshows had vanished, but their dark spirit was preserved in the comic books of the time, whose superheroes and villains were usually freaks and outcasts; their battles often took place in abandoned fairgrounds out on the Island, where Gotham met the ocean. Later these cult visions would become part of the mainstream, most notably through the film director Tim Burton, whose Batman fought killer clowns, death-dealing acrobats and a Joker whose smile was burned into his face by acid. Lou Reed wrote a song called Coney Island Baby that once seemed to me the coolest thing a boy from East London had ever heard. These days fashion designers, film-makers, and the arty types of Greenwich Village love to take a trip out to see Dick Zigun and his friends run the last remaining example of an American art form that was once ubiquitous: the 10 in 1 show, a combination of freakery, magic and vaudeville as specific in form as Elizabethan tragedy. Theirs was a very knowing, ironic version in which the audience was challenged by those whose kind were once exploited.

Some of the laughs were genuine and easy, but the final act was the Freak Show Hall of Fame, a video showing a hideous gallery of former attractions including Siamese twins, hugely obese ladies, men with melted faces, pinheads, human gorillas, and babies with no arms or legs. Watching it in an enclosed room made me feel sick, dirty, and thirsty for fresh air. But then the combinations of fear and exhilaration, gut-busting laughter and paranoia have always been what Coney Island was about.

The so-called funny face that Zigun used as his emblem was first drawn 103 years ago for the Steeplechase amusement park; and, like so many fairground faces, it had an expression somewhere between pleasure, pain, and axe-wielding dementia.

After the show I wandered the four blocks of amusement parks that had once inspired so many imitators around the world. In recent years the place has started to improve again. The Cyclone is still genuinely terrifying, not least because of the creaking sounds from its wood and metal skeleton, and the clanking of chains that pulls the cars towards a summit. There were stars and tears in my eyes before we reached the end of a violent ride; and the sudden, irrational compulsion to do it all again.

The fairground music had changed over the years, from the music hall songs, jazz, then rock & roll of the past, to the bittersweet, bass-heavy thump of modern R&B, but some things were the same. You can still buy thick, juicy fried shrimps on the boardwalk, or the solid Jewish potato cakes called knishes. The original Nathan's hot-dog stand, where the most famous dogs in the States originated, still has long queues, although the food itself was woeful.

From the top of the Wonder Wheel, as my cage swung wildly in the wind, I could see derelict land all around the Bowery, and the beginnings of a new baseball ground being built. One day soon the big entertainment corporations will realise what they're missing in Coney Island, which remains the playground of the working classes, the kooky and the thrill-seeking. They'll move in, clean it up, install state-of-the-art rides and force us all to wear smiley faces.

Go there soon, if you can, before it's too late.

Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths surrounding the enigmatic singer
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Restaurant Manager / Sommelier

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Receptionists - Seasonal Placement

    £12500 - £13520 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced Hotel Receptionists...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Receptionists - Poole

    £12500 - £13520 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Recruitment Genius: Lifeguards / Leisure Club Attendants - Seasonal Placement

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Qualified Lifeguards are required to join a fa...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn