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Side-show star John Shaw adds live action to Bagans’ Haunted Museum

Updated June 13, 2019 - 5:48 pm

Once you see John Shaw perform, you’re hooked.

So is he.

“I am a combination of a bunch of arts, magic and illusions and circus side-show stuff,” the Vegas performer says. “I do everything from putting popcorn kernels in my nose and shooting them out of my eyes, to holding paint cans with hooks in my eyes. If you want to see someone put power drills or nails in his face, I’m your guy.”

Shaw is an especially busy performer during Halloween season at his place of employ, Zak Bagans’ Haunted Museum, where he’s been performing nonstop during business hours at the creepy fortress at 600 E. Charleston Blvd.

The much-ballyhooed, upcoming live episode of Bagans’ “Ghost Adventures” show is at 5 p.m. Halloween on Travel Channel.

Turning carnival barker, Bagans says, “John Shaw brings vintage sideshow acts to the Haunted Museum that transports our guests back into the old carnival days … when it was the scariest!”

Shaw’s introduction to the museum was as a ticketed visitor. He toured the museum with fellow magician Murray Sawchuck and a group of friends in mid-August. Bagans had been told of Shaw’s menacing live act (and was impressed by Shaw’s bedeviling personal appearance), and hired the performer the next day.

The idea was to provide some live entertainment to complement the Haunted Museum’s ghostly attractions and experiences. Thus, Shaw performs in a turn-of-the-20th-century, P.T. Barnum-fashioned space during the museum’s hours of operation (1 p.m. to between 8 and 10 p.m. daily, dark Tuesdays; Shaw is also off Thursdays).

Shaw performs a series of acts over a five-minute period. He can hammer a nail or push a power drill through into his face through his nasal passages. He picks up paint cans with large hooks for a ceaseless stream of visitors, most whom are unaware of Shaw’s act until they turn the corner into the darkened room.

“That’s the great thing about the Haunted Museum, you’re looking at all this great stuff and then come into a live side show,” Shaw says. “I’m literally inches away from people, there is no way you can trick people who are standing that close.”

What Shaw performs is real. Real gross, but real just the same.

“These are not collapsible or rubber swords I’m swallowing, or rubber nails,” he says. “There are no fake hooks. I’m literally doing it all for real, all legitimate. I can do it anywhere, at any time.”

Shaw’s act is not for the faint-of-heart, or weak of stomach. Twice, those on the museum tour have had to leave the performance space because of queasiness. One gentleman bolted out of a side exit and retched in the parking lot.

“And that was just from me describing the act,” Shaw says, referring to the nail-in-the-nose or “blockhead” bit, which he calls, “the bread and butter of the side show.”

Shaw, who has recently worked both as a live performer and consultant for production shows, has appeared on “The Late Late Show with James Corden” over the summer, and years ago on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” He’s frequently recognized, but also elicits responses just for his menacing, pointed beard and black eyeliner.

“The responses I get are mixed, ranging from people who think it’s great, to fearful and horrified,” Shaw says. “I’ve had people lock their car doors, grab their kids and pull them away from me. I always say, if you want to be entertained, follow behind me while I walk down Fremont Street.”

But he adds, “I look like this because I want reactions. It’s well-cultivated to get attention that I want, negative or positive. That’s what art is. Art is both.”

Shaw had originally been drawn to traditional magic — which he still performs as well — through David Copperfield’s TV appearances and Harry Blackstone’s magic sets. But when he was 10 years old, his father took him to a Cole Bros. Circus in the New York village of Fishkill (and that is the wonderfully appropriate real name of the town).

“My dad was a police officer, working security for the circus, so I got special treatment and was invited onstage to pull the sword out of the sword swallower’s mouth,” Shaw says. “I remember, to this day, looking down his throat and feeling and hearing it scrape his teeth, as that sword came out of his throat. It absolutely blew me away.”

The performer then held the sword aloft.

“The crowd went crazy,” Shaw says. “I knew, at that moment in life, this was for me.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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