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.
VHS: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the horror short story
No, this isn’t a post about some lament over the good old VHS days of home video. Though it should be. Its not. No. The VHS to which I am referring is the critically acclaimed film, “VHS.” Critically acclaimed you ask? Why yes, acclaimed critically by those who love the horror genre. And what better critics are there to take on a film such as VHS? I think I made my point! Thank you very much.
Now…what am I getting at here? While yes, I do lament for the days of old home video, the grimy and often fuzzy picture quality I had and often do find irritable and just simply fantastic! Especially for horror movies! But I also lament something else from my childhood. The horror show or movie equivalent of a short story. Yes. Its true. Where have the days gone when Dark Tales or Tales From The Crypt or Twilight Zone ruled the night? It seems as if by the late 90’s early 2000’s we had almost completely forgotten about the shows that kept us sane through High School and replaced them with these long drawn out never ending shows, that by the time they ended, they ended terribly.
However, there is a change on the horizon. Lately, horror has made a somewhat promising return to both the movies and television. And while some have returned laboring the same drawn out seasonal method, others have taken note of horror past successes. Shows like American Horror Story and movies like VHS are getting to the root of horror, horror as a short story.
What do you prefer, the long or the short? What’s your favorite anthology show? Crypt or Zone? Leave your answer in the comments below!
Anthological Show: enjoying television in a new old way
Douglas Petrie, writer and co-executive producer of American Horror Story, recently announced the setting for the upcoming season 4. This time audiences will be transported in a 1950’s era carnival. And fans have been surging approval all week. As a fan of AHS myself, how can we not get excited about this new setting? 1950’s carnies? Yes, please! This reported setting ekes everything traditional where horror is concerned. Horror is rooted in the mystique of the carnival, from the days of Lon Chaney, Tod Browning, and Irving Thalberg. But even for non horror historians, folks will enjoy the twisted nature of the grandfather of theme-parks. This fall we’ll find “who will dare to face the challenge of the Funhouse? [And] who is mad enough to enter that world of darkness? How about you, sir…?” (The Funhouse, 1981).
The popularity of American Horror Story is interesting. Horror has always festered in the hearts of those depraved enough to look, but AHS has a wider base audience that doesn’t fit the typical horror fan scheme. The same was said regarding Frank Darabont’s take on The Walking Dead; however, rating and audience approval has been a roller coaster ride all its own, with downs in the opening of a new season, and ups midway through the second half, while AHS has enjoyed a rather steady climb, growing a wider fan base with each season. Why is that?
Perhaps using The Walking Dead as a comparison isn’t exactly fare. Getting zombies on a continuing television show is a transformative process, especially a Romero influenced zombie story. Truth be told, how many episodes can you really do before you know everything there is to know about the characters involved? How much longer can this story of this set of particular characters go on? On the other hand, audiences (despite disapproval) feel invested in these character stories and will sit down every Sunday night (or Monday afternoon, if you watch online) season after season just to see what happens next. OR…The Walking Dead could take a cue out of American Horror Story’s play book. Dedicate an entire season to just one cast of characters and their story. Producers could make the seasons a tad bit longer, but that’s it. One season, done.
You may or may not agree with the above formula. But hey, its working for American Horror Story. And why, you may be asking? Because its an old new take on how the cogs of horror operate. Long drawn out and reoccurring seasons on the same set of characters will kill a horror story quicker than the FCC. Consider Tales from the Crypt, a near decade run horror anthology (1989-96) that demanded absolutely zero audience dedication, because each show was a single story all its own, and yet people still tuned in to hear the Crypt Keeper’s hilarious chuckal and corny one liners. And before the Crypt, we had Tales from the Darkside, created by George Night of the Living Dead Romero himself, which ran from 1983 til 88′. And before Darkside, during the 70’s we had Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1970-73) based on some of the early work being done by Stephen King. And before that was audiences enjoyed The Twilight Zone (1959-64), with its incredible cast of writers, which included alums of macabre Alfred Hitchcock and Ray Bradbury. Anthologies work! Its a proven 55 year old formula! The only difference now is that American Horror Story has taken said formula and turned it into a single season turn around, instead of a single episode turn around. And this gives us the best of both worlds. We can become invested in characters without feeling stuck with them until the show comes to its inevitable end.
And that’s the rub, right? I think most of us have a tendency of kidding ourselves by thinking our beloved shows will end. And there are those who still feel the sting of watching an amazing show never reach its desired conclusion (cough cough, Firefly, cough) before being canceled. Perhaps the future of television will focus on crafting seasons the way American Horror Story does. Sure, it might not work for most shows, especially shows soiled in drama who keep audiences coming back by drastically killing off major characters (no matter how beloved) each and every end of a season, and despite how much you hate the writers for it, you still come back dammit! But for horror and science fiction, the anthology platform works and can actually improve both the story and ratings. What are your thoughts on the old new? Leave them in the comments box below!