Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema

Review 2: House of the Damned (1963), Directed by Maury Dexter

6 October 2020

By Amy Vaughn


In the 1940s, states started to make the exhibition of unusual people illegal, and sideshows fell from fashion and stayed that way for decades. Because of this, there aren’t many mid-century movies that fit our bill. Even with all the cheesy goodness that came out of 60s movie culture, I was only able to find one film that might fall under the category of “Sideshow Cinema”: the superficial and yet somehow still complicated House of the Damned.

The framework for House of the Damned is that the lease has recently run out on an old castle, and an architect and his wife are hired to evaluate whether it should be repaired or demolished. While they are there, mysterious events occur. One of these events is finding an obviously sedated cat. Another is discovering the dead body of the previous tenant, Captain Arbuckle, who ran a “tent show.” His decomposing corpse lies in bed and is nearly buried in cobwebs.

There are strange shadows, hairy fingers lifting keys, a headless woman, and a woman’s face behind the mesh of a cabinet door—a cabinet in which a person ought not to fit. In the end, it is a group of sideshow performers living in the basement who were trying to scare the couple away. The troupe is made up of a Fat Lady, a man with no legs, a woman with no arms or legs (hence fitting in the cabinet), and a very tall man (played by the great Richard Kiel). The Headless Lady, sadly, was a gaff.

Frieda Pushnik, Richard Kiel, Ayllene Gibbons, and John Gilmore.

When the architect discovers them, he says, “You’re all . . .”

To which the Fat Lady responds, “You can say it Mr. Campbell—freaks.”

“No,” he says, “I was going to say carnival people.” Which looks for all the world like the movie trying to politely excuse its premise. However, while I can’t say the plot never would have worked if the family in the basement had been biologically average (see Parasite (2019)), the uniquely bodied make this film what it is. Who are the titular “damned” if not the “freaks” in the cellar?

The Fat Lady explains that Captain Arbuckle took them in “when the sideshows began to break up.” Then, when he died, they locked the door to the castle because “they didn’t know what else to do.”

The magnanimous beautiful people deign not to call the police, but they do make it clear that the sideshow people have to go—like, right now. Do not pass Go, do not pack a bag, just get on out of here. As this becomes clear, the dialogue between the armless, legless woman and the Fat Lady ends the movie on a complicated note.

“Come along. It’s time for us to leave,” the Fat Lady says.

“Where will be go?” asks the armless, legless woman.

“We’ll have to find a carnival again. It won’t be so bad.”

The faces.”

“Oh come along. Come along. We’ve all been looked at before.”

Again, the movie seems to be apologizing for the fate of its villains. Or are they the victims? The writer, Harry Spalding, claimed to have been inspired by Freaks (1932) and the question of where did all the sideshow people go? Evidently, he couldn’t come up with a very good answer, since these folks are setting off to find a sideshow that we’ve been told doesn’t exist anymore.

But I don’t really blame him. The question is a tough one, especially if the underlying assumption is that, with the end of the freakshows, a certain subset of the biologically unique lost their means of sustenance while simultaneously being freed from an existence in which they were forced to live as objects of disgust.

We can’t be certain, however, that sideshow people resented their way of life. In fact, there are plenty of stories to the contrary. And while they have certainly been romanticized, surely there were unusual people who preferred the sideshow to an institution, which would have been their only alternative; or who preferred to be around other people who were different; or who were happy to earn a living and not rely on the generosity of others or handouts from the state (the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects people with disabilities from discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and so on, wasn’t passed until the 1990s); and surely there were those who plain enjoyed performing.

Instead, House of the Damned assumes that the sideshow tent is a terrible place where people gawk and jeer, a place from which no good can come.

Spalding wasn’t an academic or a journalist. He was a scriptwriter who spent the 60s and 70s churning out drive-in fodder, not social commentary. In House of the Damned, he’s reflecting the cultural perspective of the time, which seems to boil down to, “What a shame!”

3 out of 5 Headless Ladies

Available to rent from very well-stocked video stores and to buy from eBay and Amazon.

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