Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks begins with a lengthy prologue recounting the ill treatment that ‘freaks’ have experienced throughout history: ‘their lot is truly a heart-breaking one…Therefore, they have built up among themselves a code of ethics to protect them from the barbs of normal people’. Browning’s empathy for people with severe physical disabilities, who in 1932 were considered subhuman, seems unexpectedly progressive. But then something really weird happens: ‘With humility for the many injustices done to such people…we present the most startling horror story of the ABNORMAL and the UNWANTED.’ Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute – now they’re monsters for our entertainment? Letting slip the film’s core contradiction, the prologue pleads for compassion at the same time as it builds viewers’ anticipation for the Big Reveal of the freaks themselves.
This year marks the seventieth anniversary since Browning’s (now cult favourite) Freaks was first released and reviled by audiences everywhere, all but ending his rise since the 1920s into a money-making, though macabre, Hollywood director. Browning had been approached by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s (MGM) Irving Thalberg in 1931 to make a picture based on Tod Robbins’ sadistic short story Spurs, set in a circus sideshow, and hoping to flesh out its horror themes and follow on the heels of Universals’ success with Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) and Dracula – the latter directed by Browning in 1931. Rather surprisingly then, Freaks proved spectacularly unsuccessful; arousing such public disgust that it was quickly dropped by MGM and banned in Britain for 30 years, apparently because it was exploitative of its subject matter.
What made Freaks so particularly nauseating to audiences was its use of real-life ‘freaks’, many of whom were famous at the time. There is Johnny Eck the ‘human torso’; dwarf brother and sister, Harry and Daisy Earles; conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton; Prince Randian, often referred to as the ‘Human Worm’; and five ‘pinheads’ including Zip and Pip, among others. With such a bounty of physical disorders, Freaks capitalises on our desire to look at the performers in all their abject deftness; carefully showing us the tricks unique to each, most of whom we never really meet in traditional narrative sense. Most famous of all is a close-up on the armless and legless Prince Randian lighting a cigarette with a match, entirely with his mouth.
The story itself is one of revenge: Cleo (Olga Baklanova), a beautiful trapeze artist, tricks a lovable dwarf, Hans (Harry Earles), into marrying her so she can slowly poison him and inherit his fortune. During their grotesque wedding banquet the freaks attempt to induct Cleo into their ‘Code’, chanting ‘One of us, one of us, we accept her, we accept her!’, before she throws champagne at a dwarf, screaming ‘Dirty, slimy freaks!’ With the jig up for Cleo, Hans’ loyal friends seek revenge on a dark and stormy night, as the circus heads for the next town. When Cleo’s van crashes in the downpour, the freaks make their move.
In the version that eventually passed censors – with half an hour of the film removed – we do not see the tree fall on Cleo’s legs and the freaks smothering her body, only the aftermath: her legs have been removed, one eye is half-open, her fingers are webbed like a bird, she is covered in feathers and can only make a strained clucking sound. She is now a sideshow attraction herself, a liminal bird creature more monstrous than any of the freaks she previously tormented: humans it seems are capable of greater grotesquery than Mother Nature herself.
The central theme in Freaks of social outcasts exacting revenge on the strong informs later films like Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), especially because the punishment is, perhaps, a tad excessive. And, as with Carrie, most of the freak characters are coded as simple innocents, especially the pinheads: when they are discovered by a disgusted landowner in his field, their surrogate mother says they are ‘just children’ who want to ‘play’. Set up as harmless, their part in punishing Cleo is doubly shocking: crawling through the mud they appear to be both child monsters and deformed beasts. Is Browning suggesting that with enough stimuli even the nicest, most childlike of freaks will obey their ‘Code’ and kill?
Film writer Vivian Sobchack says in The Films of Tod Browning, that Freaks’ ‘revelation of a world usually hidden from view’ makes it akin to ‘heightened melodrama.’ For audiences at the time, though, Freaks evoked feelings of revulsion and terror: if they were being asked to look at the other, what they saw staring back were just too real to bear. Perhaps what makes Freaks strange for viewers now is its slippery morality: it is clearly having a big piece of monster cake, so can it really be seen to be eating it with compassion? Seventy years after its release the line separating the monsters in Freaks remains as murky as ever. Browning proved to be a cunning ringmaster.
Kate Harper is a Killings Film and TV columnist. She studied cinema at the University of Melbourne and now works as a freelance writer.