Tod Browning’s Freaks is notoriously the film that fell so foul with the studio and audiences of the time that even after cutting around a third of its running time the degree of revulsion it produced pretty much ended the director’s career. Having run away to join the circus as a teenager, Browning had spent spent much of his life around circus performers and felt them much maligned by society. Although he’d touched on similar themes before, Browning had always used professional actors made up to appear as if they were in someway different but this time he was determined to use genuine sideshow performers – a decision that would prove too radical for the society of the time.
Although it’s often placed into the horror genre, Freaks is really a tale of revenge and poetic mob justice in which the surrogate family of the carnival people punish the ‘normal’ couple who have tried to harm one of their own by the only method of justice that’s open to them – absorbing the miscreants into their own group. Hans is engaged to Frieda who like him is a midget but has become infatuated with the beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra. Cleopatra, however, has recently stolen the boyfriend of another performer, the strongman Hercules, and together they mock Hans’ courteous courting whilst accepting his generous gifts and loans of money. When Frieda confronts Cleopatra about her treatment of Hans and lets slip that Hans has recently come into an inheritance, Cleopatra and Herman decide to trick Hans into a marriage and then do away with him for the money.
Hans is overjoyed to have married the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen but things turn sour at the wedding banquet when, in show of friendliness and inclusivity, the the carnival folk each drink from a large glass whilst chanting before offering it to Cleopatra who recoils in horror and screams ‘Freaks’ repeatedly. Prior to this she’s already been seen in an embrace with Hercules and has been drugging Hans’ champagne with some sort of poison. In a final humiliation, she makes several allusions to Hans’ childlike stature and manhood (or lack thereof) before putting him on her back as if he were a toddler.
Cleopatra then continues to slow poison Hans but unbeknownst to her he knows what’s up and he and the others plan their revenge. An opportune storm hits the convoy in which Hercules attempts to rape or kill his former girlfriend whilst Cleopatra runs off intro the storm pursued by the mob with knives in their teeth. In the extant version of the film this is all we see – we cut back to the sideshow proprietor who provided the opening of a framing sequence who shows us Cleopatra now disfigured and stuffed into some kind of chicken suit – a freak, like those she despised. In the full version we would have seen her legs be hit by a falling tree and her lover Hercules castrated – now emasculated he also joins their group as a member of the deformed.
We are told in the lengthy prose prologue about the code of the carnival freaks (a title they embrace for themselves), of how they stick together and a wrong done against one is done against all. Looked down upon by society and often cast out by their natural families, or even sold on to goodness knows what kind of horror in virtualised slavery who else do they have to turn to other than each other? Lacking any other recourse to justice or protection isn’t their turning on Cleopatra and Hercules who have, after all, attempted to murder and rob their friend, just natural manifest justice?
Some will argue that Freaks is exploitative, aren’t we being expected to flock toward this title to gawp at the oddities? Yes, and then again no. Browning knows we will do this, it’s part of the point of his film after all. We come as voyeurs – allured by the title and the film’s reputation but our expectations are subverted. The carnival folk are good, honest people who are kind and fiercely loyal to their friends. They are willing to welcome Cleopatra into their group yet she cruelly rejects their friendship and pays them back with scorn. The real freaks are the two ‘normal’ people who are prepared to dupe an unsuspecting man in love, exploiting his emotions for their own personal gain before dispatching him completely without a second thought.
In this way Freaks does what all horror should do, it reflects the part of yourself that is ugly, that you’d rather keep hidden. It isn’t ‘otherness’ that’s frightening, it’s your own greed and hate and prejudice. It’s just a shame that it took us so long to be able to face what we so loathe in ourselves that we can finally see Tod Browning’s Freaks for what we are.