Freaks is considered as one of the most fascinating and unusual films ever produced, even though it didn’t get good critics and public’s reception in 1932. -The New York Times suggested screening the film at medical centres instead of theatres.- It is a testimony about circus sideshows and their wonders. Thanks to sideshows, freaks were able to find a frame to be accepted as such. They became the object of sympathy rather than fear or disdain.
Uncommon looking people are frightening and intriguing. Most cultures ostracize people who do not fit within their norms. In parallel, freaks are fascinating. In the 19th century, freak shows were very popular in the United States. Circus and carnivals travelled through the country to show grotesque people to “normal” people.
In 1932, Tod Browning directs Freaks, an adaptation of Tod Robbins’s short story Spurs (1923). Browning gathered a cast of real people with abnormal bodies, rather than using costumes and makeup. Freaks is a tribute to different-looking people. It is interesting to describe and analyse “normal” people when they face the uncanny.
1. Freaks or the picturing of the uncanny
Director Tod Browning was a member of a traveling circus before he starts his career in Hollywood. He was acclaimed for his adaptation of Dracula in 1931 for Universal studios. Browning was later hired by MGM studios with the intentions of producing a more frightening movie than Dracula. In Tod Robbins’s Spurs, a midget takes revenge on a beautiful circus bareback rider. Studios were very sceptical about producing such film, a team of writers therefore worked on the project in order to create a horrific tale. Tod Browning used his own souvenirs of circus life and the sideshow freaks to create a different story. In 1932, Tod Browning starts filming Freaks. The new scenario is about Hans, a sideshow midget falling in love with the beautiful trapeze artist name Cleopatra. Cleopatra seduces him and eventually marries Hans, after learning of his inheritance. But in these times, the act of marrying a freak meant you became part of their world and community.
As all the freaks celebrate the union, Cleopatra is frightened and cannot bear it. Drunk, she reveals on her wedding night that she has an affair with Hercules, the strong man. Hans is humiliated but he remains with his newly bride. Cleopatra is only interested in Hans’ money, therefore she poisons him every day so that she can inherit his fortune and run away with Hercules. However, another circus performer, Venus overhears Cleopatra and Hercules discussing the murder plot and warns Hans and the other freaks. Together, the freaks decide to take revenge on Cleopatra and Hercules by making them ones of their own.
Even if Freaks is a movie dealing with acceptance of the abnormal and showing the human nature of the freaks, MGM studios asked at that time to keep the more unusual cast members out of sight. Only the Siamese twins and the midgets were allowed to eat in the studio cafeteria while the rest of the freaks were fed at an outdoor mess hall. The freak cast had four midgets, Siamese twins, a bearded lady, a human skeleton, a “living Venus de Milo”, a half-man-half-woman, pinheads, two bird women, a half boy and an armless and legless man. The names need no long physical descriptions as imagination does actually all the work. These people found work in the circus sideshows because of their physical appearance only.
On the other hand, characters like Hercules got a part on the circus main stage only because he was very strong, the clown Phroso had a gift to make everyone laugh, and Cleopatra is beautiful and agile. Freaks had artistic gifts too, only their deformity prevents them from appearing on stage. – The scene on which the armless and legless man rolls a cigarette, lights it and smokes it is quite incredible. – Above all, like for the canteen anecdote, freaks were hidden because they indisposed people.
2. Who is the freak?
“For all the film (Freak)’s reminders of their basic humanity, the freaks were accepting, if not proud, of their physical difference and made no attempt to hide it”.
Most freaks were born with their physical oddity and lived happy with it. On the other hand, the same thing cannot be said about “normal” people who reveal behaviour and moral strangeness. In The Circus at Derby, alcoholic fathers drive their children and have accidents, men feeds a pig in order to make it the biggest ever. In Juanita, the narrator cannot speak of Juanita without irony. In Freaks, Cleopatra wants to steal a midget’s inheritance. Are “normal” people not the monsters?
“The monster is the “not us”, and yet it is an essential part of our definition of who we are. […]; in a sense, it is a demonstration of what is hidden away from view in each of us. »
In the short stories, the understanding is up to the reader to define some sort of moral. Whereas in Freaks, the circus sideshow crew organizes a revenge on Cleopatra and Hercules, they physically attack them and take control of the situation. Strong Hercules ends up emasculated and beautiful Cleopatra is changed into a hen. They become themselves monsters because they did not respect the freaks and took advantage of Hans. In a sense, the freaks revealed Cleopatra and Hercules’ true nature. At the end of Freaks, we learn that Hercules becomes a soprano singer and Cleopatra moves from the circus to the sideshow and she is exhibited as a Nature’s mistake. They decided to remain artists in spite of their deformities and learnt to live as freaks themselves.
A community outside society
Sideshows construct a social frame, a refuge for anyone who could not fit society’s physical norms. Juanita and her husband show the importance for freaks to build their own living sphere as they are rejected from “normal” people’s sphere. In Freaks, we witness the mechanisms of the sideshow sphere. Freaks live as members of a family. They watch and protect each other. In the movie Freaks, there are weddings, the bearded woman gives birth to a baby, family meals and collective concerns for Hans’ health. In their community, their differences unite them. Tod Browning insisted on showing the true face of freaks after living among them when he worked in a circus. However, Freaks was misunderstood when it came out. Critics and civic groups saw in it “a further example of Hollywood’s collapsing moral standards”.
An advertising campaign focused only on showing the freaks and not at all on the scenario with captions like “What sex is the Half-Man-Half-Woman?” and “Do Siamese Twins make love?” Finally, MGM studios cut several comic scenes in order to make the freaks more frightening on screen. These judgmental decisions proved the freaks’ ostracism. Even when they were the main subjects of a movie, “normal” people only focused on the sensational to attract audiences. In the end, the movie destroyed what freaks were attempting to create in sideshows: a sphere of intimacy.