Flashback Fridays: Tod Browning's "Freaks"
Wir sind alle freaks. That is what we were told in the early promos of “American Horror Story: Freakshow.” We are all freaks. Though the “freak” term and aesthetic have been reappropriated in recent decades, the term “freak” had nothing but negative connotations before the likes of Chic and Rick James came along to flip it through pop culture.
As seen on the show, “freaks” were considered oddities, curiosities, and even monstrosities. Between blatant, soapy, over-the-top shock and awe, “AHS: Freakshow” showed today’s audiences glimpses of a reality many today had never seen by using a cast of differently-abled actors who showed off their physical deformities to highlight their humanity.
But since its inception, “AHS: Freakshow” owed a great debt to a forefather from 1931, Tod Browning’s horror film “Freaks.” Browning’s strange opus was the first film to use real sideshow performers not just for shock, but in order to bring viewers into their world.
Browning received much freedom in making the film due to his success directing “Dracula” which starred Bela Lugosi’s iconic glare. With his newfound creative freedom, Browning sought to bring the sideshow to the masses, not because of an exhibitionist streak, but a sentimental one.
According to the David J. Skal biography of Browning “Dark Carnival,” at the age of 16, Browning had done what a surprising many children wanted to do in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, he ran away from home to join the circus. As he grew up learning the industry he paid his dues as a talker and as a performer, at one point literally burying himself alive to the cheers of audiences.
In this environment Browning learned what he wanted the world to know, if you are not a freak in the sideshow, you must become one as a performer; in essence an oddity.
The film’s plot is thin and easy to follow, if not at times condescending, but the places where the magic of the film takes place is in highlighting the plausible lives of the titular "freaks." The “freaks” are shown to care for each other and look out for each other as one big, happy family.
Conjoined (formerly referred to as “siamese”) twins Daisy and Violet Hilton carry on separate relationships as they feel shared sensations from their respective paramours. Lady Olga, the bearded woman, gives birth, showing audiences she is as much woman as any other. The limbless Prince Randian rolls and lights a cigarette during a pivotal dialogue scene in the film, showcasing that disabilities are what you make of them.
Aside from these almost documentary-like moments, the "freaks" also provide true terror in scenes such as the infamous table scene where the "freaks" chant as a welcoming gesture, “We accept her, one of us, gooble gobble.” As they chant, each successive chant pulls you into the spiral of the trapeze artist Cleopatra's nightmarish view of her fellow carnival-dwellers.
And in the climax of the film in which the "freaks" ambush the gold-digging Cleopatra and her strongman accomplice Hercules in a dark, stormy night; very few things can be as terrifying as Prince Randian wielding a knife in his mouth as he inches towards you helplessly trapped under an overturned vehicle. This scene was even recreated, as well as the previously mentioned scene, in “American Horror Story;” including the fate of their target being mutilated into a bird-person hybrid.
Reportedly, scenes of the strongman being castrated and Cleopatra being attacked physically were filmed but cut after a disastrous test screening in which a woman alleged the movie caused her to miscarriage. Even after the studio cut it from 90 minutes to a little over an hour, critics and audiences largely panned the silver screen freak show.
Though many mainstream media outlets revolted at the idea of deformed persons starring in talkies, The New York Times remarked it was at times great and at others horrible. The New Yorker’s John Mosher wrote in 1932 that "if the poor things themselves can be displayed in the basement of Madison Square Garden, pictures of them might as well be shown in the Rialto. They may hereafter even be regarded in the flesh with a new dread bordering on respect.”
Reviled in its time, even being banned in the UK for over 30 years, Browning’s “Freaks” has not only gained a cult following, but high critical praise of its overlooked value. In 1994, 62 years after its release, it was even selected by the National Film Registry for preservation for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant; only one of nine films from 1932 to be selected.
So as you say “auf wiedersehen” to Ryan Murphy’s latest “Horror Story,” remember to look into the film that inspired the entire season (for better or worse) and even made a cameo in the penultimate episode in the most on-the-nose way possible; a staged movie screening of the film itself to allude to a scene by scene homage of sorts.