Mind's Eye: Running Away With the Circus

As they lived among sword-swallowers and fire-eaters from the only remaining traveling circus sideshow in the U.S., photographers Jimmy and Dena Katz wondered: Why would a young person sign up for a dying profession, one that brings in little money and lots of grime?

"There is this old-fashioned appeal of running away with the circus," says Dena. "But it was so tough day-to-day. Living in a trailer, charging $2 or $3 per show. There was nothing romantic or glamorous about it."

A powerful escape fantasy may be more difficult to shake than the grit of life on the road. "Carnivals and circuses attract that element in the psyche that craves symbolic and dreamlike experiences," says Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul. "When work, facts, and literal issues are our main focus, we have a desperate need for liberation. Why else do we sit and watch television for hours?"

But isn't living out an escape fantasy, rather than occasionally thinking about it, generally a bad choice? "Just as people with little money will purchase a fancy television set, so a person drawn to the carnival will undergo hardship to attain their goal," says Moore. "It's largely an unconscious goal, which makes it difficult to weave into ordinary life. Because it is a rejection of normal limits, it has a certain mad quality."

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Maybe madness simply trumps reason for restless types who are stifled by conventional jobs. "Some of them told me that when they were away from the circus and suddenly smelled diesel fumes or burnt tires, they would desperately miss it and want to join up again," Dena says. Jimmy recalls that he told one performer that life in the troupe seemed hard. "The guy replied, 'All life is hard.' " Might as well put on a show.

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