Before I started studying horror as a path toward getting a doctorate, I’d never heard of Tod Browning’s Freaks. In fact, I’d only vaguely heard of Tod Browning. I’d seen his 1931 rendition of Dracula, featuring Bela Lugosi, one fall night quite a few years ago, when Tinseltown was doing a double feature of Browning’s Dracula, followed by the far superior Spanish version of the film shot the same year (on the same set, but at night, with a different director). I suppose back then I thought of myself as a bit of a horror connoisseur, but perhaps I was basking in my own ego – and that ego was eclipsing all my knowledge of what I didn’t know. Because what I’ve learned since I started reading about horror is that Tod Browning is considered a central auteur in the horror field. In terms of horror cinema, he’s easily one of the genre’s founders, and with good (varying) reasons.
While Browning’s Dracula titillated audiences in 1931, it’s one of Browning’s then-less popular creations, the 1932 film Freaks, which fascinates a lot of contemporary horror scholars and critics. Indeed, for both David Skal and W. Scott Poole, Browning’s film, and the concomitantly uncomfortable concept of “freakishness” – viewed particularly through American eyes – serves as the perfect starting point for examining the functions and permutations, the causes and consequences of monstrosity’s different conceptions throughout American history, and especially in the 20th and 21st centuries. I plan to follow their lead in my dissertation on monstrous madness; I contend that it’s rather easy to understand the allure of madness as monstrosity if we look at the American obsession with spectacle and the location of the “freak” in late 19th and early 20th century culture (at least, as a starting point). For that reason, my first chapter is set to focus on Browning’s Freaks, along with two relevant seasons of American Horror Story (Asylum and Freakshow). Of course, to get that far (even to write a proposal about getting that far), I needed to watch Freaks. So, I settled down a little over a week ago with the film. I was kind of intimidated to write about it – I’m still kind of intimidated to write about it – but this piece will blend some of my thoughts with Poole’s and Skal’s to situate the importance of the film and speculate on the reasons for its less-than-stellar (re: terrible) initial reception.
Some cast members of Freaks with Tod Browning
Freaks, which takes place in an old circus of yore, is a concise (1 hour and two minute) romp into a world that, to a 21st century viewer, seems so long ago and far away that it might be construed as “surreal.” We don’t have many circuses now, and the concept of a circus sideshow, or a sideshow “freak,” offends most of our senses of decency. We know – or we think we know, almost to the point of knowing it “intuitively” –that it’s fundamentally and inherently wrong to gawk at human beings on display – to marvel at human “difference” for our own entertainment. But according to David Skal, that tendency was – and to some extent continues to be – a fundamental characteristic of American culture. In chapter one of his book The Monster Show, he introduces us to 1960s photographer, Diane Arbus, a woman who was obsessed with and weirdly mesmerized by difference, a woman who would photograph so-called “freaks” because of her own fascination with their bodies. Skal explains that “Arbus understood Tod Browning’s America better than anyone. She saw that ‘monsters’ were everywhere, that the whole of modern life could be viewed as a tawdry side-show, driven by dreams of torture and alienation, mutilation, actual death and its every day variations” (18).
We may contend that Arbus doesn’t represent the sentiment of the population at large – and didn’t in the 1960s, either – but Skal doesn’t think that’s true. He sees horror and terror at the root of even the most seemingly benign American literature, for example, and cites Leslie Feidler, who, in his book Love and Death in the Novel, contends that American fiction is, and has always tended to be, “bewilderingly and embarrassingly, a gothic fiction, non-realistic and negative, sadist and melodramatic – a literature of darkness and the grotesque…a literature of horror for boys” (23). Furthermore, Skal calls America “Tod Browning’s” America because Browning had a penchant for spectacle and lavish entertainment, something toward which, he believes, Americans have always gravitated. But Skal knows we’ll be hesitant to admit this proclivity, to align ourselves with the likes of Diane Arbus, who studied and photographed “difference” for her own amusement. To make us confront, perhaps, our own biases and proclivities, at the end of the first chapter of his book, Skal indicts us all. He contends that “in order to fully understand [Diane Arbus] we must accept her as ‘one of us’ – a fully participating citizen in Tod Browning’s America” (23).
David Skal tries to understand Browning’s point of view by speaking for him, by describing Browning’s thoughts after he ran away from home and ended up performing different roles in the circus (before he started directing films). Skal, as Browning, muses as follows: “He was no longer Charles Browning, the Louisville choirboy whose angelic voice had amazed the congregation. He was Tod Browning now, his own person of no fixed address, living by his wits and energized by the excitement of easy money. There were yokels to be bilked everywhere. It was America’s greatest resource, this hunger for a spectacle or a miracle, no matter how tawdry or transparent. And it sure beat working” (26).
And that perspective – to the extent that Skal captures it accurately – provides an important framework for a discussion of Browning’s Freaks, a movie which showcases the beautiful trapeze swinger Cleopatra and her hunky circus companion Hercules alongside an amalgamation of different sideshow entertainers, the so-called “freaks,” who entice the circus audience because of their physical form, their bodily difference. A significant part of the hour-long film takes us around the circus and lets us get acquainted with the various sideshow performers. It turns into a sort of “meet the freaks,” show, where difference is foregrounded, but not foregrounded (at least not solely) for the sake of gawking; for a 1932 film, at least, Browning does a fair job of letting us get to know some of these sideshow performers, of portraying them in scenes that emphasize their humanity. It should not be forgotten, perhaps, that Browning had worked in jobs that had required him to be the master of “spectacle,” and for that reason, to an extent, he probably wanted to put the “freaks” in the film on display for a gawking audience. But, overall, even a half hour into the movie, we sense that Freaks is a fairly sympathetic depiction of people who have been ostracized and labeled, especially in an America that was still enamored by gazing at the so-called freakish body. (Indeed, as will later be explored, in the end, the film defends its “freakish” denizens.)
And while Browning is introducing us to the sideshow workers in the rising action of Freaks, he focuses most on the little person, Hans, and his ostensible friend (perhaps his girlfriend), another little person, Frieda. Frieda, as a not totally irrelevant sidenote, turns out to be the best character in the story. She loves Hans unconditionally and supports him through the plot’s uncomfortable climax. She emphasizes, and seems wholly sincere, about the fact that she is only concerned for Hans’ happiness. And she’s concerned for Hans’ happiness because Hans falls hopelessly in love with the beautiful trapeze swinger, Cleopatra. Cleopatra showers Hans with love and attention when they’re together, and then turns around and laughs about it – with everyone, but especially with her friend, (who is, also, perhaps her suitor), Hercules – when Hans walks away. For that reason, Hans becomes the subject of ridicule to the workers at the circus, a fact that pains Frieda when she realizes it. Frieda tries to talk to Hans, who’s too lovestruck to listen, and she’s also bold enough to talk to the cruel Cleopatra. But when she talks to Cleopatra, she makes (and shares) the assumption that Cleo’s heard about Hans’ considerable inheritance, and that’s why she’s giving Hans so much attention. Ironically, Cleo hadn’t heard about the money; she’d been flirting with Hans and then scoffing him behind his back solely for the sake of being cruel. But when Frieda lets the reality of Hans’ inheritance slip, Cleo looks immediately interested, and not much later, the two are set to be married.
The film’s most pivotal, tension-filled scene is the “meal scene” that celebrates Hans’ and Cleo’s union. At what appears to be a marriage dinner – but, circus-style – Cleo and Hercules share a dinner table with the “freaks.” I always become more alert when I see a dinner table in a movie, and not just because I really like food (which, I mean, I do). I become alert because in Thomas C. Foster’s book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Foster spends an entire chapter discussing meal scenes in literature (using observations that, of course, can also be applied to film). In the chapter Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communion, Foster bolds the assertion that “wherever people eat or drink together, it’s communion” (8). He goes on to explain that “we’re quite particular about those with whom we break bread” (8), and emphasizes the point by contending that “the act of taking food into our bodies is so personal that we really only want to do it with people we’re very comfortable with” (8).
So, what do we make of the wedding dinner scene in Freaks? Well, according to Skal’s overview of the film, it’s the scene that leads Cleopatra to her calamitous (or poetically just) ending. When the “freaks” invite her to be “one of” them, she loses her cool, a point that Skal underscores. This loss of sangfroid is allegedly what provokes the freaks to gang up against her and brutalize her. But honestly, that’s only part of what stood out to me. It should be noted, first of all, that the big table around which the “freaks” and the antagonists sit serves, not exactly, as a symbol of communion, but as a near-metaphoric marker of fraught communion, a level of human understanding and interaction that is impossible because of Cleopatra’s and Hercules’s own limitations, their inability to see the “freaks” as human beings, or to share any sort of mutual understanding with them. Along these lines, we might note that Cleopatra and Hercules are roaringly, unabashedly drunk during the whole meal, for the first time in the movie. If we take Foster’s line of reasoning, we might speculate that the alcohol is a safety net for Hercules and Cleo, a distancing mechanism that allows them to reject, indeed to annihilate, the sense of communion that the “freaks” want to create with them by “break[ing] bread” together. It would be impossible for them to sit around the celebratory wedding feast with the “freaks” in a state of complete sobriety and act like decent people who are receptive to the proffered camaraderie. In a sense, Cleopatra and Hercules (perhaps half-wittingly) perform their outright rejection of the “freaks’” communal attempt through alcohol, and the effects that alcohol has on them; alcohol gives them the audacity to laugh their way through dinner, to joke at the scene, to make a mockery of the friendliness of the “freaks,” even though the dinner is supposed to be a wedding celebration for Cleopatra, and her husband, Hans.
Not long after that, Cleopatra decides to slowly poison Hans so he’ll die and she can inherit his money. But the “freaks” are onto her ploy; different members of the sideshow start showing up in hidden nooks and crannies, listening in on Cleopatra and Hercules and learning more about their machinations as they devise a scheme to repay the cruel couple. The movie ends on a rainy night when the “freaks” launch an attack. Without much difficulty, they kill Hercules, and the fight-scene ends with Cleopatra’s frightened face and stance foregrounded as the freaks move toward her. We learn, just a bit later, that the freaks haven’t killed Cleopatra; they’ve mutilated her face so much that she can no longer speak, and they’ve paralyzed her. Cleopatra becomes a pathetic sideshow attraction, a woman with a marred face, dressed as a chicken, who squawks and tries to move as she sits in a bed of hay. The transformation is jarring and terrifying, and the message is, probably, that the freaks have won. Has anyone really won, though? Hans, rather than be satisfied with his victory, spends the rest of his days in an elaborately decorated home – probably a mansion – brooding over the whole scenario. In the final scene of the movie, Frieda visits Hans and holds him as he weeps. “I love you,” she says, as she strokes him and repeats her words for emphasis. The film ends.
It’s a weirdly sweet (sad) ending to an otherwise relatively grim, macabre movie. When the movie was re-released at the 1962 Cannes film festival, it received a lot of attention and became a sort of horror cult classic. But when the film was initially released in 1932, it was pretty much universally lambasted. Some people ran out of the movie theater in shock. It was a box office flop. Now, of course, it’s not unusual to hear accounts of audiences rejecting scenes and events of older films that we don’t find particularly difficult to watch today; indeed, the black-and-white shower scene in Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho was groundbreakingly horrific for a 1960s audience, but today, while the film is almost unquestioningly regarded as canonical and excellent, it’s rather benign fare when compared to similar (only slightly) later slasher films, like Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
What’s perhaps odd about the audience reception to Freaks is that the violence is incredibly minimal; the gore is left off the screen, and the viewer remains only to witness the effect of the freaks’ vengeful violence. Poole notes that America had already had a long history with horror and uncomfortable scenes by this point in its cinematic history, and notes, as well, that sideshows foregrounding people with significant bodily difference – and the practice of gawking at the so-called freak – had been, since the 19th century, and still was, a regular occurrence in America. What, then, about the film, triggered such universal disgust and offense? After all, according to Skal, the movie was initially over an hour and thirty minutes, but Browning had cut a half hour out of the script expressly for the purpose of making the film less offensive and improving its chances of box office success.
Poole – a historian who’s interested in how different conceptions of “monstrosity” throughout American history are embedded in assumptions and anxieties about gender, race, class, and other social identity markers – has a brilliantly explained answer to this dilemma. Since I don’t feel I have the eloquence to summarize his point as profoundly or as specifically as he himself delivers it, I’ll quote him here, at length. Poole remarks that “audience reactions can be explained by the film’s denouement. Popular audiences had become used to freaks as exhibits of the abnormal, warnings and portents about the need to preserve racial and sexual normality. Freaks, in contrast, stands up for its subjects. The narrative refuses to recognize “freakishness” as an abnormal state. Rather than assuming the age-old connections folklore made between evil and physical deformation, Browning turned the tables and asserted the moral perversity of the ‘normals’ when they deal with the freaks” (91).
I don’t at all disagree with this assertion. Poole likens the killing of Cleo in Freaks to a contemporary torture porn movie that mutilates Sandra Bullock or Jennifer Aniston; the audience wouldn’t be having it. And yet, it’s possible that his assertion is a jumping off point for more analysis, not a conclusion in and of itself. Questions arise: would, for example, the audience have been as aghast if Cleo had been killed (with minimal violence on screen)? Her transformation, after all, into a “chicken lady” who has no fate, no future, no purpose in the world but to sit and sqwak for others’ amusements is terrifying even by today’s standards. It also seems, from a literary standpoint, that in defending the Freaks as Browning does, he forces us, first, to sympathize with them (which may well have been difficult for many Americans in the 1930s, as it might be, still, for some today), and also to identify with Cleo. If, after all, “gazing” upon the freak for entertainment was a normal affair, then it was all too easy for Americans to identify with Cleo and Hercules, who derive great entertainment from the little games they play, with Hans in particular. But what of this phenomenon? There is, after all, a part in the wedding dinner scene of Freaks that’s so horrible it’s downright outraging. Cleo, who has been mocking the “freaks” with Hercules all night, as the crowd is leaving, places her new husband, Hans, on her shoulder and trots around with him as if she’s playing with a child. It’s a frustrating, uncomfortable, angering scene, and of course it showcases the complete degradation of Hans, a refusal and rejection of the dignity of her new husband. It’s especially painful because Hans (for reasons never explored) loves her so much.
Who, then, would want to see their own perverse tendencies to marvel at bodily difference horrifically embodied in a villainous woman who destroys the respect and morale of Hans, a little person who turns out to be incredibly fragile, incredibly susceptible to these cruel masters? Who would want to be compared to Cleo, to Hercules, the despicable characters who are ultimately so brutally (and yet, satisfyingly) punished in the narrative?
There is, I think, a lot of more room for analysis here. There are many possible reasons, in addition to the one Poole offers, that Freaks was construed as such a flop, even such an abomination, when it was released almost ninety years to go. For myself, the question is probably fodder for my dissertation proposal, and, ultimately, for my dissertation. This post, after all, is long enough, and I admit I don’t have much more particularly interesting perspective on the subject brimming right now. It’s important, I think, to acknowledge that there are two other “normals” (as Poole would call them) in the film, people who are relatively conventionally attractive, who work for the circus, and who are, more or less, friends with the sideshow workers. To that extent, the film is less a blanket indictment of an easily generalizable population of individuals, and more a searing commentary on a certain type of person, a person who has a certain type of propensity. Nevertheless, I contend that many audience members were able, to an extent, to see themselves in Cleo and Hercules. And, of course, they didn’t like it.
Which brings us to present day. It’s true – we don’t have such sideshows any more, and so, in a way, we don’t stare at bodies we deem different; we are less inclined, at least overtly, to dub “difference” as innately monstrous….or are we? My dissertation will focus on madness as a monstrosity and, as I suggested at the beginning of this piece, it will make the claim that marveling at the outlandish behavior of lunatics in horror movies (see, for example, Shyamalan’s The Visit, or Split, or even, to a lesser extent, a film like The Shining), is a contemporary spinoff of a very old habit – a very, as Skal puts it, American tendency – the need to gaze. As Americans, frighteningly, perhaps we still need spectacle. Perhaps we enjoy depictions of “monstrous” madness because we still want to stare, in awe, at the so-called freakish body. Just why we are fashioned this way is a question I can’t answer (admittedly, I haven’t made it to the end of Skal’s book, but I’m working on it now, and I’m not sure Poole ever quite comes to a conclusion on this specific line of inquiry). Nevertheless, Freaks is, in some sense, groundbreaking, because it forces us, the audience members, to look at ourselves – whether or not we’re willing to do it.