Forget any fear of circus clowns. The strangest shows on earth feature backflipping cats, race-car stuntmen, and burlesque puppeteers.
At London’s Hoxton Hall, acrobats scamper up each other’s shoulders to form a pyramid—although it hardly looks human. The performers are unrecognizable beneath elaborate ant costumes complete with antennae and googly eyes.
Circuses have always been a bit offbeat, but they’ve morphed well beyond the classic three-ring spectacle of clowns and animal tamers. Today’s strangest circuses are small and innovative. Some, like the Insect Circus, push the boundaries by incorporating burlesque or performance art, while others are reviving near-extinct sideshow traditions for a new generation.
“Circuses were once the biggest shows in town,” says Marc Hartzman, author of American Sideshow. “People didn’t have the same mediums of entertainment that we have today.” As audience interest drifted in the 1970s, circuses began adapting, particularly in the U.K., the U.S., France, Canada, and Australia.
A painter by trade, Mark Copeland founded the U.K.-based Insect Circus in 2002, designing fantastical costumes for the acrobatic “ants,” a winged trapeze duo that go by the names of Baron and Baroness Flutterby, and others. He is especially proud of a stag beetle shell worn by three performers. This lumbering six-legged “insect” takes on a matador in an act that resembles a Spanish bullfight.
Still other circuses get their strange factor from sideshow elements like sword-swallowers and actual insects. Adam G. Gertsacov, creator of Acme Miniature Flea Circus, practices a craft that dates back to the late 1800s. After graduating from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, he wandered from circus to circus until he got some career-changing advice. Legendary clown Avner Eisenberg told him to “focus on the fleas,” and Gertsacov hasn’t wavered since. He trains 12 fleas at a time to perform tricks like being shot out of a mini cannon into a Hula-Hoop dubbed “the hoop of death.”
For truly death-defying stunts, look to Delhi, India, where the Diamond Maruti Car Circus has become infamous for performing while hanging out of speeding vehicles. For 25 cents, you can peer over the edge of a pit and watch performers on motorcycles and in cars zoom in circles as they grab hands and stand up on their seats—an unbelievable performance that also qualifies as one of the world’s strangest sports.
Even in an age of entertainment overload, the world’s strangest circuses share the ability to keep you on the edge of your seat. Here’s a sneak peek at their shows.