Aaron Wollin, a sideshow “half-man” with no legs or hips, likes to unwind with a bong after his nightly act of leaping onto broken glass doused in flaming lighter fluid.
“Smoking weed doesn’t necessarily help when I’m jumping on broken glass on fire with my hands, but it does help to dull the pain some,” he said after a recent show in New Jersey, exhibiting his scarred hands as proof that the stunt is real. “It helps me shift my mind elsewhere and lets me control my natural defense reflexes where I don’t necessarily feel the pain.”
Wollin is a “natural-born” performer with the Hellzapoppin Circus Sideshow Revue, a crossbow-wielding, fire-breathing, sword-swallowing troupe that is touring post-pandemic America. As a so-called “natural,” Wollin is in an elite class of sideshow entertainers who are born with their oddities, as opposed to the “self-inflicted” who modify themselves with tattoos, horns and split tongues.
“I don’t care; I’m a freak,” said Wollin when asked if there’s a correct way to describe disabled sideshow performers. “A freak of nature is somebody who does not look normal and who doesn’t do normal things. A natural-born freak is someone like myself.”
Wollin’s legs and hips were surgically removed when he was two-and-a-half years old due to a rare birth defect of the lower spine called sacral agenesis. He is sometimes described as missing his lower half, but this is misleading, because Wollin said that only his legs and hips are gone—he has everything else. He didn’t go into detail, but a National Geographic photo profile from 2017 depicted him lounging in bed with a girlfriend.
Holding a bong that nearly matched him in height, he appeared to sink into the couch of his tour bus after the show in Jersey, where adult-use cannabis was recently legalized. According to Jersey law, it is now legal to possess up to one ounce and to consume it in a private residence, which includes vehicles, and therefore tour buses for sideshow performers who jump on broken glass.
Living on Adrenaline, Cannabis and Rock ‘n’ Roll
Wollin’s lifestyle is the opposite of boring. He’s a former racecar driver who loves adrenaline. Living on the edge can be thrilling but also scary, but he said that cannabis helps with that.
“I don’t just smoke it to get high anymore,” said Wollin, who has a Florida medical card and lives in Daytona. “I use cannabis in conjunction with my sideshow acts to slow my brain down when I’m on stage, to allow me to focus on what I have to do in front of me, as well as calm stage fright or anxiety.”
Killing pain became increasingly crucial as the tour progressed. A couple weeks later, in Michigan, Wollin described his hands as “beat the fuck up—they look like hamburger.”
Wollin goes by the stage name Short E. Dangerously. His friends call him Shorty. But when he’s on stage, he can seem like the biggest man in the room, performing a one-armed hand-stand on a circus stool while flashing the heavy metal devil horns with his free hand. He wears a cowboy hat and leather vest, emulating his hero, the late Motorhead frontman Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister. He was delighted to see a life-sized portrait of Kilmister on the wall of Dingbatz, the venue where he performed in Clifton, New Jersey. On his vest, he wears the THC logo of his favorite band, Texas Hippie Coalition. He appeared in their video “Moonshine.”
Shorty: The Last of the Naturals
Natural-born performers are rare, but they do exist. In recent years, the Coney Island Circus Sideshow in Brooklyn, New York has hosted shows by Mat Fraser of American Horror Story, a British actor whose arms were malformed by thalidomide; Kim Kelly, a journalist with ectrodactyly who performs as Greta the Lobster Girl; and a Paralympic swimmer from Australia named Sarah Houbolt who performs as KooKoo the Bird Girl. Houbolt named herself after the original KooKoo who appeared in the controversial movie Freaks in 1932.
Wollin is inspired by his predecessor Johnny Eck, who pioneered the half-man act and starred in Freaks, a creepy but sympathetic portrayal of sideshow naturals. Like Wollin, Eck used to drive race cars and do one-armed handstands. But Wollin isn’t satisfied with handstands. He’s taking his act further by throwing himself hands-first onto shattered glass.
“I wanted to risk it all, and what bigger risk could I take than by using my hands?” he said.
Wollin, 43, said he first smoked weed when he was 16 and started smoking regularly while in his 20s because marijuana helped him to “not worry about things that were going on with life.”
He said that he used to drink, but he quit because “if somebody said the wrong thing to me at any time, we were going to fight.” He also got tired of hangovers. Now, cannabis is his only drug. “It’s my way to get intoxicated without drinking,” he said.
Sativa For Breakfast, Indica For 4:20
Like other, regular pot smokers, Wollin has a ritual, working at night and awakening at midday to consume Coca-Cola along with snus, a smokeless form of nicotine.
“I cannot wake and bake,” he said. “I’m up for an hour, and then I smoke the first sativa of the day.”
As the day progresses towards 4:20, he gradually shifts into indica, or indica-hybrids, depending on his level of anxiety. “I’ll run the spectrum throughout the day,” he said.
During his off time, he said he’ll use a Lookah Seahorse dab pen for its extra-pure punch of THC. “It’s for when I don’t have to leave my house anymore that day,” he said.
Wollin was an MC working at strip clubs until about eight years ago, when he joined Hellzapoppin. His nomadic lifestyle has taken him to 22 countries and four continents. He’s been immortalized as a wax statue by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and he appeared in the AMC series Freak Show.
It was nearly midnight in downtown Clifton, a suburb outside New York City. His colleagues Bryce “The Govna” Graves and Auzzy Blood asked him to guard the trailer while they loaded stage equipment. Wollin left the bong in the tour bus, since nobody seemed to know whether it was legal in Jersey to smoke weed on the sidewalk, like it is in New York. (FYI: Jersey sidewalks are not okay.) Wollin put on protective gloves and hand-walked along the sidewalk outside Dingbatz.
When Wollin is out in public, surrounded by a forest of legs, his diminutive height becomes more noticeable to onlookers, though it’s not so noticeable to him. Wollin is insouciant about getting stared at.
“I feel the eyes on me, but I’m numb to it,” he said. Since people are always gawking at him, he figured he’d become a professional performer. “Now, they’ve got to pay to stare at me.”
On The Road In Post-Pandemic Pothead America
His friends Graves and Blood wore orange safety helmets while loading their equipment into the trailer, as required by law, which seemed ironic. Just an hour before, Blood had been swallowing swords and hanging weights from his eye sockets. Graves had been putting a power drill up his nose and also a screwdriver and a condom.
As the founder of Hellzapoppin, Graves is experiencing the unique lifestyle of running a modern-day, traveling sideshow during a quasi-apocalyptic coronavirus pandemic that has killed 600,000 Americans and upended the economy. Graves said his entire cast became sick with COVID at the end of the last tour, including Wollin, and they quarantined at his tree farm in Florida. He said he’s happy to be back on the road.
Graves said that most of his performers smoke weed, though he doesn’t smoke until after the show.
“Marijuana is plentiful on the road no matter what state we are in,” he said. “Our fans bring us some of the best smoke around, literally on a nightly basis. We are offered so much weed it is unbelievable.”
He said they’re legally cautious about cannabis possession when traveling across America’s patchwork of legal and prohibition states. They’ve developed an interstate strategy for stashing weed.
“There have been many places around the country where we bury our weed and mark it with a GPS because it is still illegal in many states, and we can’t risk our livelihood,” said Graves. “Sometimes, we have to leave it behind. We call that weedocashing.”
If there’s a downside to running a sideshow, it’s that Graves is occasionally accused of exploitation, which offends him. He denies that he’s exploited anyone.
“Just because someone like Shorty is a half-man doesn’t mean he can’t also be a performing artist!” he said. “Shorty has lived the life of 10 men and has experienced things most can’t even dream of.”
Wollin shrugged off any notion that he’s being exploited, noting that he approached Graves for the job, not the other way around.
“This is the life that I’ve chosen, and if anybody is exploiting anybody, I’m exploiting myself,” he said.
Wollin is getting older, and he doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to live the life of a traveling performer. But before he’s through, he wants to establish himself as a legend, as a more extreme version of Eck.
“It’s been a hell of a ride, and I’m a survivor,” said Wollin. “My goal? In 40 years, I want people to talk about me like they talk about him now.