Column: Film and TV

Monsters at 70: Tod Browning’s Freaks

by Kate Harper , November 15, 2012Leave a comment

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.




the-story-of-the-lost-child

Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their August picks

Looking for a book recommendation? After a busy month dominated by the Melbourne Writers Festival’s huge range of events, staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading. Read more »

daniel-handler

Kate Harper

‘I think about terrible things happening’: An interview with Daniel Handler

Given the current age of acute media-fuelled panic over childhood trauma and accidentally fucking them up, Daniel Handler’s (aka Lemony Snicket) dastardly depictions of children fighting to survive can be read as tales of wonder. Kate Harper chats to Handler ahead of his upcoming Melbourne appearances. Read more »

o-MAGGIE-NELSON-900

James Tierney

Usefully Uncertain: A review of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts in nine fragments

I first read Maggie Nelson in the April of last year, during the early feverish stages of an autumn cold. Her slim 2009 volume Bluets is a bare and consonant appraisal of blue – as a colour, as music, as meaning sexual content and the fuzzy indigo of depression. Read more »

One-Direction

Rebecca Shaw

Right Direction: The value of fandom

I have a pop-culture confession to make to you, Internet. It isn’t something I’ve been trying to keep hidden for fear of seeming uncool, because that ship sailed long ago. But it is something I haven’t opened up about until this point. I, Rebecca Shaw, have become a One Direction fan. Read more »

abortion

Rebecca Shaw

Choice Without Stigma: Dismantling the abortion taboo

Abortion is still illegal in the criminal code in Queensland – even in this, the Year of Our Beyoncé 2015. While women are unlikely to face practical obstacles to abortion due to the law, it can still cause isolation and unnecessary fear, and creates a stigma around the act. Read more »

17177200132_2383e88c36_k

Rebecca Shaw

Rage Against the Marriage: The inanity of same sex marriage debate in Australia

I am someone who is completely comfortable in my sexuality, and who classifies myself as the genus Lesbionisos. I am 100% certain that I am not abnormal, an abomination, or in any way inferior to heterosexual people. Sometimes I even secretly think non-heterosexuals might be superior. But I haven’t always been this assured. Read more »

The_Gift_2015_Film_Poster1

Anwen Crawford

Memorable Chills: Edgerton’s Gift

The Gift is Australian actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut — he also wrote, produced, and stars in it — and it bodes well for Edgerton’s directing career. A psychological thriller, The Gift is efficiently and quite memorably chilling, at least for the first half. Read more »

wolfpack-1024

Joanna Di Mattia

Escaping The Wolfpack: Inside and outside the screen

The Wolfpack introduces us to the six Angulo brothers, who were kept virtual prisoners for 14 years in their Lower East Side apartment. More than a captivity narrative, this is a film about the influence of cameras and screens, and the transfixing, liberating power of cinema. Read more »

f9a2809e-97eb-400d-b491-b4b6a6f09930-2060x1236

Clem Bastow

Telling Stories: Women screenwriters and the obligation to represent

There is something in the recent call to arms for female writers and directors to ‘tell your story’ that leaves me feeling bereft, not vindicated. The idea that As A Woman I must write about women first and foremost is a special kind of hell. Read more »

golden-age-of-television

Jane Hone

How the Golden Age of Television Brought Us Back Together

I recently heard someone say that it used to be that at 6pm, everyone would sit down to watch The Cosby Show. It seemed at once a quaint and almost sci-fi notion ­– millions of people watching the same show at the same time. How things have changed. Read more »

glitch abc tv

Stephanie Van Schilt

A Glitch in the System: The ABC’s undead gamble

In one gasping breath, Glitch shows that the ABC is stumbling towards something beloved by TV audiences the world over, but that regularly eludes the Australian and film and TV industry: genre. And not just any genre, but the ‘return-from-the-dead’ zombie-style genre. Read more »

family-hour

Anwen Crawford

By Screen Light

Television and depression have a history together. We’re all familiar with the trope: the person who stays in on a Saturday night watching TV in their pyjamas is the sad schlub with no life. Read more »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Edinburgh

Jane Howard

The Impenetrable City: Getting lost at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

I just saw a one-on-one performance piece that ended in my bursting into tears and the artist sitting with me and holding my hands in hers for maybe ten, maybe fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. We had a shared piece of history, and her work was delicate and took me by surprise, and I have a cold, and I am homesick, and I don’t know why I’m in Edinburgh, and I’ve cried a lot, and now I’m in a gallery because I couldn’t face another show. Read more »

Resized__863

Jane Howard

A Mess of a Brain: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

In some ways it seems like an impossible task to take Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing and translate it to any other art form. How to find a life for a book that is so internal, so unrelenting, in anything other than the pure words of its narrator as they appear on the page? Read more »

Keith - photo Shane Reid

Jane Howard

Local Courage, Global Reach: The National Play Festival

There is something to be gained from observing any collection of works in close proximity, and in these readings you could see the way Australian playwrights are reaching out into the world. Together, these works show the minds of our playwrights in robust health, with works that are itching to find their audience. Read more »