Let’s Talk Freak Show

Let’s Talk Freak Show

An honest, possibly scrambled, and very emotional review and critique.

Trigger warning: Contains coarse language and depictions of violent acts.

In September 15-17, 2017, I attended the larp Freakshow by Nina Teerilahti, Alessandro Giovannucci, Dominika Cembala, Martin Olsson, Morgan Kollin, and Simon Brind. The larp was held in Vaasa, Finland.

Pre-game painting of Charlie “Edge” by Aarni Korpela.

This was a larp about Otherness. About what it means to be different inside a community where different becomes the new normal. We were a travelling freakshow consisting of real freaks and “carny” folk. We had conjoined twins, a bearded lady, a birdman, an albino, a mermaid… and there was a lot of supernatural stuff going on. Actual magic. An alien queen, the Paraca, who had been worshipped like a Goddess by an indigenous tribe in Peru many years ago. And an immortal badass — yours truly — spiced up our experience quite well.

What caught my attention very early on was the prospect of playing on a real life abandoned amusement park. And we did. It was grand; it was eerie. We had a huge circus tent and a lot of run-down places to explore. Of course, off-game we had to be very careful, since there had been actual destruction and chaos on the site. Most of the garbage laying around were not props, although there were a lot of easter eggs to be found. I loved this little touch; we could find plush animals, clothes, photographs, letters, and even in-game money just casually scattered over the huge site. This led to something happening in the game that I would not have expected or even dreamed of.

Five minutes into the game, the hermaphrodite Vic came up to me, holding a small teddy bear in a clown costume. They gave me the teddy bear. I named them Fuckface. And from that moment on, my character carried Fuckface around everywhere, introduced them to everyone, and even held a baptism for them on Sunday. It gave me so much unexpected play and hilarity. I loved it and I’m very sad that Fuckface was gone on Sunday evening when everything ended. Haven’t seen the little fucker since.

leather bound person standing in front of a freakshow poster

Pre-game painting of Vic by Aarni Korpela.

But let’s start from the beginning. How did I end up there?

In a larp group on Facebook, I noticed the trailer and website for Freakshow and I was immediately intrigued. I read the brief character descriptions and fell in love. I wanted to see them come alive. I wanted to be them. On the website, there were really short summaries of who the characters are, their powers, their dilemmas. Interested players would then have to sign up and fill in a form, providing information about how they felt they could fulfill the role they chose. I’ve never seen this method before, but I found it interesting, although it fed into my anxiety quite a bit.

After a while of contemplating, I decided to actually sign up, although I knew there could be issues arising from me possibly starting a new job exactly around that time.

drawing of bearded man with feathers

Drawing of Birdie by Vira Takinada.

At first, I was in love with the character called Birdie. They were described as a dark, tortured soul, suffering from feathers growing on their body and seeking relief in drugs, which they would take but also distribute.

But there were already three people who had applied for that role, so I chose to refrain from it and rethink my choice.

Then, I stumbled upon Zombie. Zombie, the undead, was described to be a person who is numb to any form of touch or physical pain, with a full-body skeleton tattoo to stretch that point. But on the inside, they are very much alive and have a great deal of feelings.

painting of an undead woman with face tattoos and piercings

Pre-game painting of Zombie by Aarni Korpela.

In the application, we were asked to describe what we were going to do with the role, and I said that I would not do the huge tattoo for various reasons. One of those reasons was that I have a bunch of colorful tattoos myself and I didn’t see myself capable of pulling something like that off, having to cover my own ink and then creating something of that scale. I was sure I wouldn’t get the part, because I basically shut down a major design idea. Also, the prospects of having six people who have never even met me evaluate my “worthiness” of playing a certain role bothered me for quite a while. Who are these people? What gives them the right to judge me based on what I wrote on a form based on what I wrote in a language that is not my first, not even my second language?

I took issue with wording like “evaluating,” because that for me added pressure to the situation, and I’m very perceptive to pressure.

But I got the part. I was ecstatic to say the least. I got to play Zombie the Undead. I had a Hangout session with my character designer. All of the players were assigned one of the GMs to help us create our characters and their background stories. Yet again, this was something I had never encountered in a larp before and I found it fascinating. For me, it went very smoothly, beautifully. We created something intense. Something real, despite all the supernatural that was going on within the concept. It was actually me who created this story of Zombie being immortal when subjected to physical violence. Not even a bullet to the head could kill her. This led to a frustration within the character — a frustration with herself, with death, with the world. Ultimately, it led to her decision never to kill a person. Because why would she grant anybody the satisfaction of dying when she can’t? “Fuck em, I’m not helping.”

Painting of a person in long red coat and tutu

Painting of Rocky by Vira Takinada.

I made connections with a handful of players way before the game and I am forever grateful for those friendships that grew out of this process. They made my experience all the more magical.

During preparations, I set Zombie up to be a reckless, loud mouthed danger to society and first and foremost: herself. She would blindly run into any kind of fight or even harm herself deliberately to prove a point. Also, I described her to be kind of a comic relief, to stretch the point of her being illiterate and thoughtless.

When the date of the larp came closer, my anxiety started to take hold of me again. I have that, it happens. I thought things like… what if nobody likes me? What if nobody enjoys my kind of play. What if they find me to be annoying or unapproachable or just unworthy of their time? What if I do everything wrong? What if I don’t do enough? What if I cannot provide them with good play, which I so desperately want to do more than anything else?

And then I went there. And it was wonderful. It was an atmosphere of immediate love, support, and understanding. Family. I got to know people in the Helsinki airport and the bus from Helsinki to Vaasa. We talked about what we could do with our characters. We tried to catch each other’s vibes to find out how to approach each other in- and off-game. I liked that. I needed that. After the game, I received beautiful feedback, saying that my portrayal of Zombie made her seem like an actual person, not like a one trick pony caricature with no depth. I hold this compliment very dear to my heart.

person with goggles looking at a crystal ball

Painting of Ilmarinen by Toon Vugts.

In the workshops before the larp, I feel that one thing was missing. Beforehand in the Facebook group, we had established “shared memories,” which were situations in which we could choose to have our characters participate and show the others how everyone would react to them. I think it would have been very beneficial to the game if we had repeated at least some of the shared memories, just to refresh common knowledge within the group. This practice could be helpful for other games that use this method as well.

There is one shared memory in particular I feel the group should have refreshed: What does your character do when the big bad police come? Do they hide? Do they approach? Because the police did indeed show up at the site. And Zombie, who I had established to be a fucker-upper of the everything, could approach them without anyone batting an eye. In the shared memory, I had written that Zombie wouldn’t hide from the police, but needs to BE HIDDEN from them, which meant physical removal of her from the sight of the police. But nobody remembered that and everybody was so overly nice and considerate of everybody’s game, so nothing happened in that direction. And when a local (NPC) priest showed up, I even took it up a notch and was the first one to greet him and “show him around,” spewing typical Zombie bullshit while at it, and in the end, making that poor Reverend very, very uncomfortable by showing off what the Zombie do.

person with long red hair and blue scales

Pre-game painting of Scales by Aarni Korpela.

Being nice and considerate is not a bad thing. At all. I just think that the overall niceness and the uncertainty about physical boundaries amongst players (and NPCs) prevented some intense play which would have totally been possible and necessary. Maybe it would have been beneficial to do an overall round of “Who is okay with physically intense play, being touched, grabbed, held, etc.” at the workshops, so that we would have gained an overview and more certainty. Because my personal physical boundaries are at an estimated radius of -1. Grab me. Do it. Meanwhile, others need more space and/or are easily intimidated, which is absolutely fine and to be respected. So yes, more clarification on that would have helped.

The meals were something that didn’t give me much play, personally. I was very out of it for the most part. I felt confused and also I was forced to stop scenes, because we needed to go to the restaurant, which was about 1km away and we had to walk there. It felt unnatural to me, to see these people who just ten minutes before were arguing, crying, doing rituals or what have you, stand in line for lasagna in a cantine. I personally lost scenes, because we were interrupted by someone telling us to come to dinner or lunch. A set timeframe for meals and an open invitation to go and have the meals when it actually fit into play organically would have been better for me. Especially since we were instructed to be completely in-game for the meals as well.

Painting of Ophelia by Vira Takinada.

One thing that fascinated me from the first time it was announced was that there will be no photos of the game. Only drawings. A group of phenomenal artists was invited to come to the game and draw us. On Saturday evening, they played NPC town folk who came to the sideshow. That was really cool and I enjoyed them a lot. They gave my character a push towards a kind of inner development I would’ve never expected. Other players brought up the point that the town folk should have played in a more antagonistic manner, which does make sense. But I think this played into the issue of everyone being too nice in- and off-game, so there was no escalation at the sideshows except for the police threatening Big Sister. But that was in her “office,” pretty secluded and out of sight for the people who were doing the sideshows, so most of us had none of that play.

On Sunday, the real action for the artists started. They were playing “watcher spirits,” wearing black veils, walking around the site and drawing us. We were instructed to see them as an invitation for an inner (or outer) monologue and to feel the presence of either God or the Devil. A sense of impending doom. A very neat idea, of course. But in the actual game, it was a bit much. There were 11 watcher spirits roaming around the whole day and I felt that the players were not willing or able to play 8 hours worth of depression. That one of the spirits came up to me and hugged me in-game added to my confusion as to what to play on here, but I later on learned that they weren’t supposed to touch us and the person playing the spirit just thought I looked so sad. Which I was. I mean, Zombie was. And it’s totally fine, I had a fun story to tell off-game and chose to not play on it in-game. Overall, I think a lot of us were overwhelmed by the amount of dark creatures watching us and also we felt that we needed to play on constantly growing despair and misery. That was a bit much. I made the decision for my character to try and get people in a good mood again and it kinda worked out in the end.

Later on I had the pleasure of meeting the artists off-game and talk to them. It was glorious and I adore them all to bits.

woman smoking, man in tophat, and clown

Drawing of Charlie (top), Tick (left), and Yin (right) by Kaspar Tamsalu.

At the game itself, I had a blast. I have this thing where I very quickly create catchphrases for my character once I start playing them. This is a sign of me really being in there. So apart from calling everybody “motherfuckers” or just plain “fuckers,” Zombie had a choice of catchphrases and I really punched in the point of her being illiterate. She couldn’t read, write, count, or even read a clock. She approached someone to ask them what the money that she had just been given was worth. It was a fiver. It was big money. She also started to title everybody with “the.” The Rocky. The Scales. The Charlie. The Mabel. It was kind of a unique thing for her and her way of speaking and I highly enjoyed it.

Very quickly, I found Zombie to be a character who was incredibly — and inexplicably — trusted within the freakshow family. She could approach any group at any time and would’ve been told what’s going on. She learned secrets, theories, and a whole bunch of nonsense she then took and spread all over the place. “Have you heard?” was one of the most spoken sentences.

This trust that I received cemented Zombie’s loyalty towards what she perceived to be her family. She called Big Sister — the second owner of the Norman Sister’s Freakshow — “Momma”; she referred to Atlas — the strongman who now worked as the janitor for the show and had a marriage-esque relationship with Big Sister — as “Daddy.” This started out as an off-game joke. I just took it and ran with it. It worked out beautifully and gave me so much emotional play.

bald man with a triangle on his forehead and tarot cards

Pre-game painting of Oracle by Aarni Korpela.

Zombie cried. She was angry. Frustrated. Hurt. Desperate. Hopeless. Sad. It was a pleasure to play. She was a pleasure to play. The triggering moment for Zombie’s crying happened on Sunday morning. It was truly a sight to behold: Zombie leaning on the Oracle — who was stone-faced like always — and sobbing desperately in grief and anger. The Oracle was a character who could see the future, but had no power to influence it in any way. He firmly believed that nobody could escape fate. Zombie got into an argument with him over the death of Hope, the teenage son of the Freakshow owner, Little Sister. Hope was bludgeoned by townsfolk on Saturday night and the whole group was to discover his body at the gates of the amusement park on Sunday morning. No character was unfazed by this. Everyone of us had some kind of reaction and started their own way of mourning.

Also, Zombie’s story of not having killed anyone came full circle. I made sure everybody knew this for a fact, as well as the reason for it. Zombie even said it to the police officer who kind of interrogated her. “Nah, I haven’t killed nobody.” And the Oracle said, “Yet.”

At the last performance, Zombie and the Paraca planned to outsmart the Gods with a human sacrifice that won’t die. They wanted to perform a protection ritual to benefit the show and save them all. Because Zombie was known to be immortal to some extent, the two of them agreed to sacrifice her on stage. But of course, that plan failed horribly.The Paraca noticed that the ritual wouldn’t work without anyone actually dying and begged Zombie — who she had stabbed and partially gutted with a knife right before as part of the ritual — to kill her.

Painting of Paraca by Vira Takinada.

“Don’t make me. Please don’t make me. I can’t. Don’t make me. Don’t make me.”

“Do it for the family!”

Zombie turned her face towards the audience in the circus tent.

“I love you.”

And stabbed the Paraca in the heart.

After that, Zombie was eventually taken off stage and given a blanket… and sat somewhere on the side. That led to me not being able to enjoy the ending fully, because my perspective didn’t allow it. That’s something I regret dearly. But everything happened quickly, so I guess it slipped all of our minds to seat the Zombie and her gut — a piece of intestine I made for the show and carried around with me after being sliced open in game — somewhere more convenient.

A pale woman posing with their hands in her pockets.

Painting of Zombie by Vira Takinada.

I want to end this review by elaborating on something that I said during the debrief:

I learned from Zombie to let people love me. Because I usually don’t. I tend to try and be strong for everybody yet push people away when it would be my turn to show vulnerability. Zombie was loved. She had a family. She also had to learn to let people in and let them care about her. That is something Jasmin needs as well. I thank you all for this experience. For the enlightenment. For giving me a good giggle when we were told at the debrief to find a character we hated, to talk the experience over with them… and I actually stood there alone for a minute because there was no real hate for Zombie.

Thank you for everything.

For the baptism of The Fuckface Charlielover von Ballsack I, the teddybear in a clown costume. That fucker got his soul saved.

And I bid you all goodbye.

Fuck-cerely yours,

Grace Boleyn, Zombie the Undead

Cover Photo: Painting of the Freakshow larp set by Toon Vugts. Image has been cropped.

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Jasmin Lade (b. 1988) is a Swiss larper, designer, and organiser. She’s the head of the larp organiser project Quicksandbox, under which she has published minilarps, and is running Stay.