Early in the documentary “House of Oddities: The Story of the Atrocity Exhibition”, performer Macabre Noir states that “When you’re a weirdo teenager in a cow town, your art is your escape from everything.”. “House of Oddities” follows a troupe of Pittsburgh artists, burlesque dancers, filmmakers, and sideshow performers who have banded together to put on a variety show where they can display their talents.
Noir’s sentiments are repeated often by the other subjects interviewed in the doc. You may recognize them as the pierced Hot Topic clerks who carried around Nightmare Before Christmas lunchboxes in high school. The type of people for whom adolescence was a struggle but have now formed a community and are now the center of attention. The film cleverly crosscuts between the live show and the performer interviews introduced by the drag queen Cherri Baum. They speak about how they met and how the exhibition gave them a place to be free and creative. We see them prepare for freakish acts that run the gamut from straight jacket escapes to body suspension. The ideas for the shows range from Victorian era mental hospital to an alternate history where an Atom Bomb was dropped on Europe in the 1930s.
Another common theme which runs through the film is that the show has served as a makeshift therapy for the performers, many of who found it after suffering personal setbacks or broken relationships. The artists are all open and unpretentious. Director Brian Cottington gets them to open up and tell embarrassing stories about their trials and tribulations perfecting their acts. They laugh at themselves but they take their art seriously and know the importance of the show they put on.
What we don’t seer is any counterpoint. We don’t hear from the fans of the show or what it means to them to have exposure to darker, alternative forms of art and exhibitionism. We also get no idea if they have experienced any resistance or blowback from people in the community who may not appreciate what they’re doing. Pittsburgh is thought of more for Steelers fans and blue collar workers than its dark underground art scene. It paints a pretty rosy picture of a friction free production.
“House of Oddities” is a well produced look into the lives of people that make art instead of merely talking about it. We could all take a cue from them. It is now available on DVD & Streaming.