The Inherent Horrors of Tod Browning's 'Freaks'


Very few films back in the day were as controversial as Tod Browning’s 1932 masterpiece, Freaks. From its very beginnings, even at the test screenings, audiences ran away horrified, forcing the film to be cut down to just over an hour with the original version forever lost, but even after these drastic alterations, the film spurred so much controversy and backlash upon release, getting banned in many places around the world for what was believed to be grotesque and exploitational portrayal of people with disabilities. But since its release, the film has been subject to many studies and interpretations, and film scholars have long debated its meanings and messages, and its status and genre as a film, with the most important question being: is it even horror?

Yes, the film’s status has improved and critics have changed their opinion of it, it is no longer considered to be macabre exploitation, but Tod Browning’s vision is now considered one of sympathy and empathy, yet it is often denied entry into the horror genre, with a measly compromise of “but it contains some horrifying sequences.” Freaks is very much a horror film for the simple fact that when viewed from every perspective a film offers its audience, it is an incredibly shocking perspective; there is no escape from the horrors of the story.

The film revolves around an able-bodied beautiful trapeze performer named Cleopatra who seduces a dwarf to steal away his large inheritance, while his wife Frieda, alongside their disabled friends who all work at the same circus try to warn him of the evil plans of Cleopatra and her boyfriend Hercules. The film is notorious for its cast of actual circus performers who had real disabilities, like The Bearded Lady, The Conjoined Twins and The Human Skeleton.

The film ultimately has three perspectives, and each one is more horrifying than the last if given the least bit of thought. The first one the audience are offered just as the film opens is the perspective of the detached third-person spectator: the film opens with a host introducing both us and an actual audience in the film to the end results of whatever disturbing events the film holds, viewed from the top of a cage as the people around it, and consequently us as well, peak and scream out in fear.

Freaks does not display its characters mid-performance, but opts to display the human lives they lead outside of the circus, humble but mundane; acts like a disabled person lighting a cigarette with their feet or conjoined twins leading separate sexual lives are what the film was harshly criticized for, but these people exist and these are their lives, the horror is not the way they cope with their situation, but it is the reaction of the outside world. While for the majority of the time, they prefer each other’s company for the inherent automatic understanding that comes with it, occasionally, a “normal” stranger walks in and either reacts with hate or fear, reactions that are not exactly new to them, but definitely not welcome or unharmful.

Freaks’ third perspective is of the “normal” people in the environment of the circus, mainly Cleopatra and Hercules. While their stand comes very close to the unsympathetic stranger’s reaction, they are a bit more tolerant for the sake of their own evil intentions, and while they smile to the film characters, it is never sincere and always portrayed as some sort of favor, but still, that is not the horror of this perspective, that is the fact that through their false nice gestures, the other characters truly come to accept them as one of their own. In an iconic scene showing the wedding between Hans and Cleopatra where they chant “We accept her, we accept her. One of us, one of us,” the tone changes from one of hope and beautiful warmth to one of extreme hate and disgust, as she perceives their welcoming gesture as one of ultimate degradation; the film works so hard to show that their lives are completely normal only to say that it does not really matter after all.

Suddenly denied all the dignity the film offered them in its first half, the characters reclaim some of it in one of the most horrifying ending sequences in history: dimly lit, atmospheric and extremely creepy, this scene alone would earn the film the title of a great horror film. But we ultimately go back to the very first perspective, the one of the detached observer, but after an hour of these events, our perspective changes from one casual curiosity to something a lot more involved; the perspective of the “freaks” is that no matter how normal their lives get, the outside world will always come bulging in and its reaction will always be as hateful as ever, the perspective of Cleopatra and Hercules that a nice gesture, even if truly not meant, will result in what they feel is degradation, and our perspective at the end is the simple realization that this happens. Horror is not ghosts and ghouls and jump scares, it is portraying what we often fear to show, and that is what Freaks does beautifully.

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  1. The man seduced by Cleópatra wasnt a dwarf, but a very little man.


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