Date of Award

December 2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Tasha Oren

Committee Members

Tami Williams, Gilberto Blasini, Lane Hall, Elena Gorfinkel


Circus, Conjoined, Freaks, Siamese, Sideshow, Twins


This study analyzes representations of conjoined twins in the United States to illustrate how historical images are in conversation with biographies, medical documents, sideshows, and contemporary film and television shows about conjoined twins, both fictional and nonfictional. The recycling of established tropes and the privileging of science over humanity results in limited understandings of the fluidity of conjoined twin identity. Separation and individuality are favored, relegating conjoined twins to "disabled" people that need fixing. Studying biographical artifacts of Millie-Christine McKoy's and Daisy and Violet Hilton's careers illuminates the interrelationship between biographies, images, and rights. Although born into slavery, Millie-Christine overcame social challenges and were afforded rights beyond what most people of African descent had during the 1800s. Daisy and Violet, however, were born decades later yet were owned for over twenty years and never fully wrested themselves from their tabloid images. The motion pictures they made, Tod Browning's Freaks and Chained for Life, however, started creating narrative space for conjoined twins in film, and both allow for female conjoined twin sexuality, something no film has done since. Freaks visually and narratively accommodates those with unusual bodies, while Chained for Life lays the groundwork for later films that privilege separation. Building on this history, this study analyzes conjoined twins in fiction and nonfiction film and television, specifically fictional two-headed "monsters"--one body with two heads--and full-bodied conjoined twins who remain connected. These narratives insist upon separation if conjoined twins desire romance, or play out a good twin/bad twin pattern, and they favor easily assimilated bodies. Conjoined twins in nonfictional television shows generally become spectacle or specimen via the highlighting of scientific discovery, separation, and independence, while medical knowledge is favored at the expense of conjoined twins. However, several programs about Lori and George Schappell or Abigail and Brittany Hensel endeavor to disrupt medical narratives, overturn stereotypes, and widen perspectives. These offer a first step toward broadening the identity spectrum to account for fluctuating identities and notions of individuality, which could help redefine conjoined twins outside of singleton terms.