America Loses a National Treasure: Shoot the FreakS

Today's sad news is that nine of the businesses on the Coney Island boardwalk lost their licenses, including Shoot the Freak, the game where anyone could shoot paintballs at a living human for $5. Life will never be the same.

For all of you who haven't been to Coney Island, Shoot the Freak was one of the main attractions on the boardwalk, at least for me. It's strange that it lost its lease considering Shoot the Freak was less of a building and more like an abandoned plot between two graffiti-covered structures. After a buffering hedge, it was decorated with barrels and bins, targets and mannequins, and a bright green wall flecked over with the marking dye of exploded paintballs. It was like a junkyard in the middle of what is already a trashy strip along the beach.

But the crier at the game made it come to life. He would beckon those walking by to step up and shoot "the freak," a young man wearing huge padded pants, a helmet, and goggles who would run around this apocalyptic wasteland avoiding shooters' ammunition. I never saw him wear a shirt, and he usually carried a shield that was rigged out of metal garbage can lid. He would dart back and forth, ducking for cover and trying to outrun the sharp-shooting vacationers out for an afternoon of cheap thrills. He would always get hit. A lot. And the bullet with land with a wince-inducing thwap and the mark of the ammunition would join the countless colored scars dotting his gear. God, how much did they pay that poor kid?

The best thing about Shoot the Freak, though, was that it was shocking. For all of those who have never visited before, it's amazing—almost barbaric—that in the 21st century there is an amusement park attraction where you can shoot at a real live person! And that's what is great about it. Shoot the Freak fulfills some savage desire to shoot at another person, but to do it safely and without threat of retaliation. It was the ultimate amusement. It was gritty, it was real, it was wrong, and it was something you could only do in Coney Island.

And now it's just one more thing for New Yorkers to say "X was so much better when Y was still around." There is nothing worse than nostalgia, or trying to make new transplants feel like their version of Gotham is somehow lacking, but Shoot the Freak will be missed. 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. It was a little chunk of Escape from New York plopped down on the boardwalk and everyone got to play. For a change you were the hunter rather than the hunted.

Now it will probably be paved over and some nice, tidy business put in its place. The owner, Anthony Berlingeri, also owns the nearby Beer Island and is rightfully upset that his landlord ousted his later business and said they're going to replace it with "something similar," probably a beer garden run by a Brooklyn brewery. It's nice to put in another home-grown business, but their sure-to-be snazzy slickness is the opposite of Coney Island. Who knows what Shoot the Freak might become. Laser tag? Air rifle target practice? A Subway sandwich shop?

Who knows. Who cares? I'm just glad I got a chance to see it while it was there. To see a little boy crying next to the chained paintball guns wailing, "I don't want to shoot the freak. I don't want to shoot the freak," and his father scolding him, "You're going to shoot the freak, and you're going to like it!" I never really wanted to shoot the freak either, but I knew that as long as it was there that the New York City I loved was still there.

[Image via MisterBisson's Flickr]