A few years ago, city planning commissioner Amanda Burden assured New York that both she and Mayor Bloomberg “love” “Shoot the Freak,” that slightly sick carnival game out on Coney Island where visitors shot paintballs at an actual human being. The “freak” himself wasn’t really a freak, in the way that the stars of Coney Island’s freak shows of yore were truly bizarre — it was really just a guy wearing some pads and, in a move some would complain lessened the thrill of the game, carrying a metal shield. But it took the old target-practice fairground games to a new level: You really were shooting at a person, one who couldn’t shoot back. As Brian Moylan at Gawker observes, “New York City is not always an easy place to live, and Shoot the Freak was one of the things that was cruel on the surface … For a change you were the hunter rather than the hunted.” It was also something that was truly ugly — and that was the problem.
It wasn’t just that you were shooting a weapon at a human being — it was that the whole setup was really ragged. The “Freak” sometimes gave you a run for your money, weaving and diving, but other times he just waddled out and took it, more pathetic than provocative. The “booth” was actually just a vacant lot filled with various piles of detritus behind which the freak could duck and cover. And the whole thing was covered with messy paint splotches — the colors were of the rainbow, but the effect was of mud.
Now Shoot the Freak is one of nine Coney Island institutions — also including Ruby’s Bar and Grill, Cha Cha’s Bar, Gregory & Paul’s, Grill House, Coney Island Souvenirs, and Gyro Corner — whose leases were not renewed under the new management. Less gritty icons like Nathan’s, of course, will stay, as will the Beach Shop. “I’m devastated,” Ruby’s owner Melody Sarrel told the Post. “[New management Zamperla Rides] wants everything new, but that’s not what Coney Island’s about — it’s about nostalgia. People in the summer love to come in for a drink in their bikinis and bathing suits. It won’t be the same when they’re told to dress up because it’s a ‘high-class place.’”
It’s probably a stretch to imagine Coney Island will ever be a “high-class place.” But the charm of it was that it was so purposefully low-class. With this not-so-subtle whitewashing, that era of freakdom has obviously passed.