Norwich, England, is home to rolling rivers, quaint streets and old churches, so it might be surprising to learn that it's also home to the Circus of Horrors.
From the bearded lady to the elephant man, mysterious medical conditions have a long history of attracting audiences to a circus tent. And those days have not disappeared. The crowd lining up in a theater lobby for tonight's performance proves the "freak show" is not a thing of the past.
The Circus of Horrors is a touring extravaganza, packing the house wherever it goes. It features everything people don't want to see but can't stop looking at. The show includes all sorts of characters with all sorts of body piercings and tattoos. But the star of this show is 37-year-old Garry "Stretch" Turner, and his wild skin-stretching act.
Turner suffers from an extreme case of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that can severely weaken a person's joints, blood vessels and in Turner's case, skin. The disorder, which most commonly attacks a person's joints, affects about one in 10,000 people. However, the odds of Turner's special variety of the disease are astronomical.
The skin on Turner's body is truly elastic. "If [you] … look at your own skin cells under a microscope, they'd be nice and round and lock in many places. … But my skin cells tend to be more jagged, and don't fit together quite so well," he said. "The best way to describe it is I'm built rather like a badly woven basket, if you can imagine that, which will pull apart."
Normal human body cells are held together by a kind of chemical glue called collagen, which keeps them tightly bound. But the collagen of someone with EDS is misshapen and loose, which, in the most extreme and rare circumstances, produces skin like Turner's.
Backstage at the Circus of Horrors, Turner demonstrates how the skin on parts of his body can be pulled away. "There's areas of skin, like on the belly, for instance, that will stretch a lot further," he said.
"It's actually twice as thin as regular skin," he continued. "Although you wouldn't believe it to look at it … it is actually quite paper thin."
Turner's condition was obvious from the day he was born. "The midwife said that I had very loose skin, and that was the only clue [my mother] remembers … I had loose skin."
Growing up, Turner loved sports, but injuries were constant until his condition was diagnosed at age 13.
"I used to get horrendous bruising when I used to take a knock, and a blood vessel would burst," he said. "The blood would just keep pumping and pumping, and there's no tension in the skin to hold the bleeding. The physicians just thought I was a hemophiliac."
Turner doesn't feel exploited by the circus. "Not at all," he said. "I feel that it is my choice, and that feeling of making a thousand people laugh at the same time is a great feeling. So, for that reason alone, I love the stage. … I don't want people to feel any sorrow for me in any kind of way."
Curiously, Turner said the one time he felt the sting of ridicule was when his rare case was being diagnosed, and doctors from across Great Britain came to peek and probe.
"I remember seeing … some 80 physicians on one certain day … and that was kind of my first side show."