Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema

Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema, Review #1: Freaks (1932)
By Amy M. Vaughn

1 October 2020

Freaks (1932)
Director: Tod Browning

The first time I saw Freaks, I was still a teenager. I distinctly remember a frisson traveling through my then-slight frame at the sight of the very unique bodies and abilities on display. It was the 80s; in terms of sideshow culture, we were adrift between the ten-in-one and Jim Rose. What I was seeing was new to me and felt taboo.

My immediate affection for the film was also due to the so-called “freaks” not being the actual monsters of the story. The plot revolves around an elegant trapeze artist who intends to marry a little person for his fortune, but all the while she is carrying on an affair with the strong man. The beautiful people laugh at and show disgust for the freaks. It is made plain that they are the bad guys, while the sideshow performers are portrayed as good and decent people who are only violent when provoked. Little alienated punk rock Amy liked that very much.

Over the years, I’ve gone back to Freaks every now and again, always identifying more with the varied and uncommon than with the fit and statuesque. Over the years, I’ve also gained several different diagnoses of mental illness until finally bipolar came along and stuck. (It’s rapid cycling bipolar 2, for those familiar with the lingo.) I would never claim to know first-hand what the uniquely bodied go through, but I do know what it means to be different. Stories of “freaks” who have adapted to their situation, who have a community looking out for them, who figure out how to live fulfilling lives—those stories speak to me, give me hope. I eat them up. Of course, other people find “freaks” intriguing for very different reasons.

From royal courts to the back rooms of medieval taverns; from rented halls in Victorian England to dime museums in Times Square; and from the circus sideshow to the traveling carnival’s ten-in-one, biologically unique people have spent history making a living by being on display. Freaks simply brought them to the big screen.

Why will the public pay to see “freaks of nature,” especially since, speaking in generalities, people who are not different become uncomfortable around people who are? Whether it’s morbid curiosity or questionable sympathy, disgust or titillating fear, the Other holds fascination, and the uniquely bodied are well aware of the attraction and repulsion they provoke in the average person. So, while it may not ease their discomfort, the commercial exchange gives the viewer permission to stare.

Yet, it isn’t as simple as that.

In his book Staging Stigma: A Critical Examination of the American Freak Show, Michael Chemers describes the complicated social expectations faced by “people with stigma,” by which he means people who look different.

[P]eople with stigma are expected not to make too much of their misfortunes, not to show bitterness or self-pity, and certainly not to impose themselves too much on normal people, who have their own problems. The rhetoric of equality that pervades American society is ironically pernicious, because it obliges the stigmatized not only to achieve certain goals and take responsibility for their failures but also to be meek and deferential, to perform inferiority; stigmatized people generate resentment when they perform in ways that do not acknowledge this inferiority.

Micheal Chemers

Yet in freak shows, instead of easing people’s discomfort, the disabled poke right at it. Or as Chemers puts it,

Perhaps one reason that freakery continues to compel our attention is its categorical refusal to help alleviate the anxiety that disability produces in nondisabled people. On the contrary, freakery systematically and strategically nurtures that discomfort in order to exploit it for profit (emphasis added).

micheal chemers

He goes on,

[I]ncreasingly, historians and theorists of disability are coming to applaud the freak show for its ability to make transgressive and progressive statements in contrast to dominant ideas about how people with disabilities ought to behave.

michael chemers

Freaks, therefore, was transgressive before that was even a thing. It took a taboo subject and turned it on its ear. The title, Freaks, from the man who directed Dracula just the year before, promised viewers an Other to despise. Instead, it humanized the Other and vilified those who would demean them! Perhaps needless to say, it didn’t go over well in 1932.

But today, Freaks stands up. The edit moves along, though the pace of the movie may be due in part to the half hour Browning was forced to leave on the cutting room floor. Regardless, when the film does bog down, it’s because one person or another is recreating their act, exhibiting their specialness.

In researching my novella Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel, I watched Freaks yet again, and I read about the lives of its stars, as well as those of many other sideshow performers. Some of their stories are tragic, but just as many aren’t. The recurring theme seems to be that regardless of the hand life deals you, it’s still up to you to choose how to play those cards.

Within the sideshows those hands varied wildly, and were organized into a hierarchy. First came the “born freaks” (conjoined twins, Armless Wonders, Bearded Ladies, etc.). Then there were the “made freaks” (the Tattooed Ladies, people who had succumbed to accidents, and so on). Third were the working acts (fire eaters, strong men, mesmerists). And finally the gaffed freaks, acts based in deceit (the headless lady, the spider woman).

Johnny Eck, often billed as “The Amazing Half-Boy”, “King of the Freaks” and “The Most Remarkable Man Alive,” starred in Freaks as well as a number of other films.

In the documentary American Carny (2007), Todd Robbins swallows swords, eats glass, hammers nails into his head, and more. Robbins lives and breathes the sideshow, but he won’t let anyone call him a freak. “Freaks,” he says, “are the royalty of the sideshow . . . all the great freak acts were a demonstration of the human spirit’s ability to overcome almost any obstacle, and it was a very empowering experience. So don’t call me a freak, because I am not worthy.”

My intention is to take this humble attitude into our investigation. I won’t be able to talk about every sideshow horror movie ever made, that would require a much longer format. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on those that will tell us something about the perception of the biologically Other in society. Tod Browning’s Freaks, for its part, was an important early step in the struggle for rights and respect for the differently bodied and is still relevant today.

While I doubt we’ll make a very big dent in the problem of the stigma of disability—there’s an entire academic discipline whose job that is—we can raise questions and give the issue our attention. We can seek to better understand the biologically unique in real life and in story. And we can talk about the role of the horror movie as the new sideshow.

My bet here at the outset is that fake mutations and lab-made monsters may abound, but when it comes to the real thing, “freaks” will be treated either fairly, sympathetically, or even with kid gloves, because those of us drawn to horror are often freaks ourselves.

4 out of 5 Gooble Gobbles

Available for rent nearly anywhere online that rents movies.

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