Fun Fact Friday brings you, our audience, facts and information sparking discussions related to “inclusion” as it intersects with disability, culture, and society.
Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) follows traveling circus sideshow performers and their interactions with others behind the curtain. The film focuses on Hans, (Harry Earles) a little person who loves a nondisabled trapeze artist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). His efforts to woo her are met with laughter and mockery behind his back, especially by Cleopatra and her lover Hercules, (Henry Victor) the strongman of the company. Once Cleopatra learns that Hans will inherit a fortune, she and Hercules hatch a plan to have her marry Hans and poison him. When the other “freaks” of the company learn about this plan to murder one of their own, they exact revenge on those responsible. Watch the opening scene…
From behind the scenes of Freaks survives a story involving author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was working on a script for MGM at the time. One day during lunch, Fitzgerald saw conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton at the commissary and became sick after realizing that both understood the menu even though only one of them was reading it. Studio executives and crew members also complained about having to look at the disabled performers at the commissary. These issues led to an “off-limits” policy, effectively segregating disabled performers from the commissary. This agreement was reached by Irving Thalberg who was the Vice-President in charge of Production.
Reaction by Jonathan Bartholomy
Tod Browning’s Freaks is a fascinating film, to say the least. 85 years after its initial release, it has survived, continuing to attract audiences and spark discussions. For its time, Freaks was something entirely different that audiences were not prepared to see. While Lon Chaney, the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” was known for roles that included disabled characters, moviegoers understood that what they saw on screen from him was not “real.” (Norden 74). Chaney was known for his use of prosthetics and other devices for his roles. Freaks goes beyond this, having people with disabilities on the screen playing various roles. The reaction to Freaks when it was first shown in theaters can help indicate how people with disabilities were perceived at this point in time in U.S. culture. It was released during a period where the idea of people with disabilities as “freaks” was fading fast, replaced by a medicalized view of disability that emerged in the late 19th century and continues to this day. Through modernization, viewing different bodies as something extraordinary or captivating for audiences fell out of favor (Garland-Thomson 11). The medicalization of disability “casts human variation as deviance from the norm, as pathological condition, as deficit, and significantly, as an individual burden and personal tragedy” (Linton 11). With such a shift at that time, the images people saw on the screen were met with revulsion. People with disabilities were pitied and withheld from public view, with focus placed on eliminating disability through cure, rehabilitation, public policy, or death. Thankfully, further cultural shifts in later years brought about reevaluations of the film.
When I first saw Freaks “back in the day,” I had never seen anything like it. As a person with a disability, I was attracted to it and repulsed by it. On the one hand, having grown up with other kids with disabilities in elementary school, I connected to its sense of community and understanding. On the other hand, I was disturbed by how quickly the “freaks” turn to revenge, thinking about how this may have impacted how people saw other people with disabilities. As time moved on, I saw more and more that connected with my interests in film and disability, examining everything from historical factors to shot selections and camera angles. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the film.
A number of years ago, I wondered if anybody would take on the idea of remaking Freaks. I briefly entertained the idea (in my imagination, of course) of a studio handing over the reins to someone like Rob Zombie (I believe this was during the time that Zombie had just finished one of his Halloween remakes, so I figured he might have enough clout to actually do something like that). Of course, beyond “the imagining,” I knew that this would not or should not take place. Freaks is better off being left alone. American Horror Story: Freak Show is the most similar program in comparison to the film that I can remember. Still, while AHS showed a surprising level of sensitivity that I didn’t expect, I still found it problematic in reinforcing old ideas about disability.
Freaks makes me think about the efforts towards altering the perceptions of people with disabilities through representation and how things are slow-ly changing. I tend to be apprehensive about any new disability themed film or TV programming that comes out, feeling that I might be devastatingly disappointed. Still, I keep watching what’s on the screen.
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “’Introduction: From Wonder to Error–A Genealogy of Freak
Discourse in Modernity.” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed.
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 1-19.
Linton, Simi. Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York: New York University
Norden, Martin F. The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies.
New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994.
Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: W.W. Norton &