Tod Browning’s 1932 Hollywood horror Freaks was deemed so disturbing that it was banned in the UK for 30 years. Tina Jackson doesn’t find it scary at all.
At first, I loved Freaks because I was curious. Its reputation – the film so shocking it was banned in this country for 30 years – went before it. It had been made by Tod Browning, the director who brought Bela Lugosi to undead legend in 1931’s Dracula, and it had finished his career in moving pictures. A viewer sued MGM after the test screening, claiming it had been so shocking it had made her miscarry. Parts of the original 1932 film had been considered so disturbing that they had been destroyed. What could possibly be so vile, so subversive, that it could have that effect?
Freaks had a big-screen theatrical rerelease earlier this year, but another reason I loved it was because Freaks was as impenetrably secret – and fascinating – as the hidden world it depicted: that of the long-gone circus sideshows, where human oddities were exhibited in a repellent carny cabinet of curiosities.
“Not for nothing has the freaks’ chorus of ‘Gooba gobble, we accept you, we accept you, one of us’ become a rallying mantra for self-defined outsiders.”
But in Freaks, so I gleaned (I hadn’t managed to see it yet, the ban was lifted in 1963 but screenings were rarer than hen’s teeth) they were not the passive victims of a voyeuristic gaze.
I learned more about it. Tod Browning had travelled with sideshows and circuses. He’d been a barker; been buried alive as a living corpse: was scaring the living daylights out of cinema audiences with Dracula his revenge on the gawking punters? With Freaks, he did something more. Browning cast real sideshow performers. He knew that people like Johnny Eck (Half Boy) and Daisy and Violet Hilton (the Siamese Twins) were stars in their own right, in their own world. So Browning put the strange people, ones who were regarded as odd, or even repulsive, in starring roles in a Hollywood film.
Eventually, I got to see it, in the 1990s when its classification was reduced from X to 15. It was on late at night, and I stayed in to watch it, anticipating – hoping, even – that it would be entirely alarming and that I would be reduced to a quivering jelly of shock and outrage.
I loved it… but not in the way I thought I would. For the first 10 minutes, Browning’s cast of sideshow freaks was unsettling – but then the normality of the film asserted itself. Anything but monstrous (at least, until provoked into extreme behaviour), the gentle, accepting community of freaks highlights the exploitative cruelty of trapeze artist Cleopatra and her strongman lover Hercules. When Cleopatra’s machinations beguile midget Hans from his equally small partner, our hearts break for the distraught Frieda just as they would for any woman in similar circumstances.
For all her external beauty, Cleopatra is a snake, and the villain of the piece, but Freaks’ heroine and anti-heroine are distorted mirror versions of each other. Both are blonde, both have a glamour, although Frieda is the adorable girl next door, as long as next door is a trailer. Cleopatra is tall and beautiful. Frieda is small and lovely. Cleopatra is twisted on the inside, and when the freaks enact their revenge (which because it’s a melodrama, is horrible, and because she’s so nasty, you kind of realise she’s brought on herself) she’s made ugly on the outside too.
Far from being horrifying or sensationalist, Freaks is a strange, sad, tender film where people are persecuted because they are different, and band together against outsiders. Not for nothing has the freaks’ chorus of “Gooba gobble, we accept you, we accept you, one of us” become a rallying mantra for self-defined outsiders.
Freaks is a one-off, a single film in a genre all of its own. There is nothing else like it. Perhaps there ought to be. The repellent practice of gawping at human oddities is as enshrined in our perfection-obsessed culture as it was 83 years ago – so much so that if you’re not into reality TV, you’re seen as the peculiar one.
In a world where conformity is so desirable, turning the tables to view the perspective from the other side of the cage is a rare experience of a different, and just as valid, way of seeing.2009 Views
Tina Jackson is a Leeds-based writer and journalist with a parallel existence as a dancer and variety performer.