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Patty Leon: Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction
Patty Leon new

I love horror movies and TV programs. I grew up watching “Creature Feature” every weekend when Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Werewolf were the stars of the show. Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney Jr., Vincent Price — all these actors brought these monsters to life, and they ruled the silver screen in this genre.

Most of the time, horror movies and stories are based on fiction or stories that have yet to be proven as fact. We know Dracula was based on Bram Stoker’s novel; Frankenstein was based on Mary Shelley’s novel.

But some people believe Dracula was based on Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Dracul), the second son of Vlad Dracul, who became the ruler of Wallachia in 1436. He is best known for torturing and killing his rivals, impaling their bodies and setting them out for public display. It’s said he killed at least 80,000.

Murderer Ed Gein is what inspired Leatherface of the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” movie series and is the basis of the serial killer Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs” and several other horror flicks.

Other movies like “The Devil in Connecticut,” “The Amityville Horror” and “The Conjuring” are all based on true stories. But proving these are a bit more difficult, so many people believe they are based on hoaxes.

Not too long ago, I started rewatching some of my favorite episodes of “American Horror Story.” I personally believe seasons 1–5 are the best.

Season 4, “Freak Show,” is about a group of carnival entertainers known for their odd appearances — the Siamese twins, the halfman, the bearded lady and so on. These carnival performers are based on real people, and it also reminds me of Gibsonton, a real place in my former home state of Florida.

The town of Gibsonton, just about an hour north of Sarasota, the home base for the Ringling Brother Circus, is where most of the circus performers lived when they weren’t traveling. Also known as “Carny- town,” Gibsonton was home to Percilla the Monkey Girl and Melvin Burkhart, the Anatomical Wonder. Tons of performers made it their winter home. In fact, it was reported that the famous Siamese twin sisters, Violet and Daisy Hilton, ran a fruit stand there during the carnival’s off-season.

In “Freak Show,” there is a character named Lobster Boy, based on probably the most well-known former Gibsonton resident, Grady Stiles.

Stiles’ family has a long history of ectrodactyly, a deformity in the hands and feet, often making them look like claws — hence the name Lobster Boy. Unable to walk properly, he used a wheelchair, but mostly he used his arms and upper body strength to move. He was described as an angry drunk at times and was married more than once and had four kids, two of whom were also born with ectrodactyly.

During one drunken rage, Stiles was convicted of murdering his eldest daughter’s fiancé on the eve of her wedding day — but he never spent a day in prison because the state prison system didn’t think it was equipped to handle his deformity. He also had major liver and health issues from his years of drinking and smoking, so he was placed under house arrest and 15 years of probation. An on-again, off-again alcoholic, Stiles died in 1992 when his wife hired a carnival worker to kill him for $1,500. He was 55.

Gibsonton is the location of the International Independent Showmen’s Association, a non-profit private organization made up of 4,500 members and counting who are in the outdoor amusement industry. The IISA Museum houses two floors detailing the history of the carnival industry and is likely very worthy of a visit.

According to the 2020 Census, “Gib-town,” as the locals call it, has a population of 19,432, although not all of them are retired sideshow performers. But it has a unique — if not weird — history.

And let’s face it: Sometimes facts are stranger than fiction.

If you happen to visit Florida, check out the Showmen’s Museum: https://showmensmuseum. org/.

And an hour south is Sarasota, home of the Ringling Brothers Circus Museum in what was their former Mediterranean- style mansion: https://showmensmuseum. org/.

Patty Leon is senior editor of the Coastal Courier.

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