Freaks (1932): A Highly Unusual Attraction
“Before proceeding with the showing of the following HIGHLY UNUSUAL ATTRACTION, a few words should be said about the amazing subject matter. BELIEVE IT OR NOT – – – – STRANGE AS IT SEEMS. In ancient times anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill luck or representative of evil. Gods of misfortune and adversity were invariable cast in the form of monstrosities, and deeds of injustice and hardship have been attributed to the many crippled and deformed tyrants of Europe and Asia. HISTORY, RELIGION, FOLKLORE AND LITERATURE abound in tales of misshapen misfits who have altered the world’s course. GOLIATH, CALABAN, FRANKENSTEIN, GLOUCESTER, TOM THUMB AND KAISER WILHELM are just a few, whose fame is world wide. The accident of abnormal birth was considered a disgrace and malformed children were placed out in the elements to die. If, perchance, one of these freaks of nature survived, he was always regarded with suspicion. Society shunned him because of his deformity, and a family so hampered was always ashamed of the curse put upon it. Occasionally, one of these unfortunates was takes to court to be jeered at or ridiculed for the amusement of the nobles. Others were left to eke out a living by begging, stealing or starving. For the love of beauty is a deep seated urge which dates back to the beginning of civilization. The revulsion with which we view the abnormal, the malformed and the mutilated is the result of long conditioning by our forefathers. The majority of freaks, themselves, are endowed with normal thoughts and emotions. Their lot is truly a heart-breaking one. They are forced into the most unnatural of lives. Therefore, they have built up among themselves a code of ethics to protect them from the barbs of normal people. Their rules are rigidly adhered to and the hurt of one is the hurt of all; the joy of one is the joy of all. The story about to be revealed is a story based on the effect of this code upon their lives. Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world. With humility for the many injustices done to such a people, (they have no power to control their lot) we present the most startling horror story of the ABNORMAL and THE UNWANTED.”
And this is how Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) opens. We are forewarned with a somewhat strange historical account for the philosophical reasons for the most traditional accounts of ethnocentrism. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s presentation of Tod Browning’s production of Freaks follows one of the most classic idealizations and horror film motifs, the carnival. According to film historian David Skal, Tod Browning first became enthralled with the carnival when he was sixteen years old, “infatuated with a dancer, a so-called sideshow queen in the Manhattan Fair & Carnival Company” (The Monster Show, pg. 28). The unusual attraction to the carnival for those in my generation is probably best seen through the eyes of Ray Bradbury in his epic novel, “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Dark images of Ferris wheels silhouetted against dark skies. The circus, as far back as I can recall, has always been a place of strange attraction. We do not venture to the circus to see the mundane, after all. In the history of cinema, the film began in much the same way, as a sideshow. And, furthermore, is that not what horror movies are? A strange attraction?
Freaks follows the doomed tale of a trapeze artist named Cleopatra (performed by the ever talented Olga Baclanova) who discovers that a circus midget by the name of Hans (Harry Earles) has a sizable inheritance. She knows Hans is in love with her and decides to marry the lovesick performer, all the while concocting a dubious plan to murder him and steal his fortune, running off with her lover, a dim-witted strongman by the name of Hercules (Henry Victor). But everything is not as it seems. Cleopatra is openly disdained towards Hans’ fellow freaks. And when Hans’ friends discover what is going on, they band together and carry out a brutal revenge that leaves both Hercules and Cleopatra knowing what it truly means to be a so-called “freak.” The best scene, I thought, was at the end, during a torrential downpour as both Hercules and Cleopatra are attempting to flee from their would-be assassins. Hercules is caught under one of the wagons and as we watch, the freaks knife drawn, close in on him. Watching these mutilated forms drawing near, crawling through the mud, has always given me this sense of dread one hopes to find in movies such as these. Cleopatra’s fate is probably the most heinous albeit deserving (SPOILERS) when they mutilate her so badly she herself transforms from something of beauty to just another sideshow attraction. When had looked upon her, they swooned with love, and now they doing nothing but scream!
There is little doubt that it was Tod Browning’s directorial success with Dracula (1931) which allowed him to work on what many have considered his masterpiece. This is my personal opinion, of course, but I think it is more accurate to say that Freaks was more of a passion project, considering his own past experiences working the sideshow as a geek up and down the Mississippi River. What I find most interesting about Freaks is the time period in which the film was released. Horror during the 1930’s, in my opinion, is a retrospective look at the Great War. The maiming and grinding machines of war which ended in 1918 found its way into the picture shows of this era, in movies such as Freaks (1932) and even Frankenstein (1931) we find a representation, if intended or not, of the mutilated shell-shocked forms of returning soldiers and perhaps even modernity. One need only to look at Lon Chaney’s career to see what his custom-made effects were to symbolize.
If this was an intentional use is debatable, but nonetheless, especially in the 1920’s-1930’s, it was a familiar image, the afterbirth of war, so to speak. Even here in our own age, we find an intuitive symbolic gesture. Consider the latest season of American Horror Story, subtitled: Freak Show. A period piece set during the 1950’s telling the story of the last remaining freak show struggling to survive. This new season of AHS is juxtaposed with the end of the Iraq War, or at least the era of the war of which so many of my own generation fought and died or worse survived — mutilated both externally and internally. Have Tod Browning’s classic 1932 Freaks found a new audience in a new generation of witnesses to the horrors of war and the macabre afterbirths? To each their own, I’m sure.
My rating: 5/5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Apocalypse Meow. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, both Dwelling and Emerging and Conceiving, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.