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Classic Sideshow Acts: The Girl into the Gorilla

A crowd is brought into a darkened tent. A beautiful girl is in a cage, often in jungle clothes (tiger-skin bikini and the like), and she stares forlornly out into the crowd. Sometimes it’s explained that she’s a genetic abnormality found deep in the forbidden jungles of the Amazon. Sometimes, she was the sad by-product of a mad scientist’s experiments. Regardless, the crowd knows what they’re there for: this beautiful girl to change into a gorilla right in front of their very eyes.

This trick, or varieties of it, has been a staple of the sideshow since the 19th century and it’s still performed today in a variety of forms. The technique is called “Pepper’s Ghost”, named after the British scientist and inventor John Henry Pepper who expanded upon and improved an earlier trick called the “Dircksian Phantasmagoria”. Using angled glass, lights, and a second identical room that is slowly transposed or morphed onto the primary, the concept is used daily at Walt Disney World in The Haunted Mansion, is seen in the Bond movie “Diamonds are Forever”, various museums in the UK, and even in an episode of the children’s show. “The Magic School Bus”.

Regardless, we miss the wonder of the original sideshow effect, as the woman became a beast, burst through her bars and chased the screaming audience out of the tent past carnies prepared for the mad rush of laughing and scared locals. While we don’t (currently) have a Girl-to-Ape attraction at The Museum of the Weird, we like to think we capture the spirit of these traveling shows. The next time you’re in Austin, Texas, make sure to come see us down on historic 6th street…and prepared to possibly run screaming out of a room yourself!

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