Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Tod Browning's "Freaks", 1932...

Fig.1 Freaks Poster.


Freaks is a horror film, but not in the conventional sense.  Its main focus is on the day to day lives of the performers in a freak show and not their actual performances. These performers are absolutely incredible because they are all real-life members from a freak show.  This is absolutely fascinating for the viewers as it is completely unexpected, but it also caused a lot of trouble for the director.  The display of these 'freaks' was considered a great worry, as Joan Hawkins explained that "Confusion about the film seems to have stemmed largely from the use of real freaks to play the parts. 9 Critics worried that the film merely replicated the most unsavoury aspects of the “Freak Show.”" (Hawkins, 2000:142) This is perhaps the main concern for a film covering this kind of subject matter. Freak shows are a completely barbaric and unpleasant business that profit from taking advantage of the vulnerable and unfortunate sufferers of deformity. Any film that would include such an 'unsavoury' topic might also be doing it to earn money from the audience's disgust at those unnatural 'freaks', but this is not at all what the film is trying to do.


Though it does contain many people with varying deformities and disabilities, they are not there to be laughed at or mocked, they are there to show the audience that their reality is almost exactly the same as the viewers'. One of the most delightful things about this film is the comradery and love that's seen between the performers.  Their abilities vary from the extremes of the 'The Human Torso' (a man that appears to have nothing more than a torso with no limbs) to an 'average' man that just wants to make people laugh. It is possible that this conveying of the 'freaks' humanity was the trigger to so many critics outrage towards the film, as Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc divulged: "It is easier to dismiss them as grotesque side-show entertainment than contemplate the horror of an active loving mind being subjected to the casual cruelty of the gawping public." (Le Blanc, Odell, 2001:51)  This film is one of the first times that the audience members have been able to see these 'freak show' performers as they are behind the curtain. Before this film they were mere forms of entertainment to be revolted by, but this film allows the viewer to see who they really are and how wonderful their life together is because there they can live without judgement.  The humanity they show through their love for one another is truly heart-warming. The performers each have an innocence that seems to make them more human than any audience member at their show.

This is particularly clear when the performers' comradery is juxtaposed by the selfish and vain trapeze artist. She's beautiful and 'normal'. She has no physical deformity but her absence of compassion and sincerity is far more monstrous and inhuman than anything these performers could have. This is where the real horror of the film lies, not in the 'unnatural' deformities of the performers but in much more malevolent realities of human nature.  Ina Rae Hark expressed that "The status of what defines an abnormal monster, the role of violence in society, and the place of community codes of conduct, all timely themes, were also in play in the year’s most reviled film, Freaks." (Hark, 2007:76) This shows support towards the idea that the definition of an 'abnormal monster' is challenged in this film. It is no longer the traditional deformed monster that seeks to tarnish everything that is good and pure, but is replaced by the far too ordinary reality of human selfishness and greed. The mention of 'community codes of conduct' also plays a part in the horror of this film. The last section features the performers act of punishment on the trapeze artist and her partner for being deliberately horrid and abusive towards the 'freaks' as she called them. Sadly, most of the sequence is lost because it was deemed too terrible to be shown, but the aftermath at the end is quite terrifying. Another shame is that the performers had to stoop to the level of becoming things of horror in order to do this, but the viewers are still undoubtedly on their side.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Freaks poster. At:

Figure . Table: At:


Hark, Ina Rae. (2007) American Cinema of the 1930s : Themes and Variations. USA: Rutgers University Press.

Hawkins, Joan. (2000) Cutting Edge : Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde. USA: University of Minnesota Press.

Odell, Colin; Le Blanc, Michelle (2001) Horror Films. GBR: Pocket Essentials.

1 comment: