This is a reprint of the feature essay from Issue #66 of Exploits, our collaborative cultural diary in magazine form. If you like what you see, buy it now for $2, or subscribe to never miss an issue (note: Exploits is always free for subscribers of Unwinnable Monthly).
“You laughed at them, shuddered at them. And, yet, but for the accident of birth, you might be one as they are.”
So bellows a sideshow barker at the start of 1932’s Freaks, though his words go unheeded. Today, Freaks is rightfully seen as one of the most thoughtful and earnest pictures of its time. Upon release, though, it essentially ended the career of director Tod Browning.
Loosely adapted from the Tod Robbins story “Spurs,” Freaks introduces us to Hans and Cleopatra. He’s a dwarf in a carnival sideshow; she’s a beautiful trapeze artist who wouldn’t normally give him the time of day. That changes when she learns of an inheritance that would make Hans (and anyone he marries) independently wealthy.
Cleopatra’s attempts to seduce and murder the diminutive millionaire are hampered by her own revulsion toward his friends, including “Half-Boy” Jonny Eck, “Living Torso” Prince Randian and conjoined sisters Daisy and Violet. When her plot is exposed, the freaks seek righteous vengeance, fomenting one of the most gruesome examples of body horror from the pre-Code era.
Before becoming a filmmaker, Browning had been a carny, traveling the country as a roustabout, contortionist and clown. Freaks was a passion project, a chance for him to portray his beloved sideshow family as sympathetic human beings, not just oddities to be gawked at.
Alas, MGM advertised the film with offensive, othering taglines like “Can a full-grown woman truly love a midget?” and “‘We’ll make you one of us.’ From the gibbering mouths of these weird creatures came this frenzied cry. No wonder she cringed in horror!”
Critics clutched their pearls. Theater-goers walked out in disgust. At the box office, Freaks flopped. Hard.
The things that made the film a commercial failure, however, keep it resonant and relevant today. It was ahead of its time, calling out the privileges of mainstream audiences and the capitalist exploitation perpetuated by the status quo. Freaks is a film that reminds us of our own cruelty, and of how thin the line separating “us” from “them” truly is.
No wonder people in 1932 cringed in horror.