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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone