October 2: Carnival Creeps VS. Tod Browning’s Freaks

I knew I was meeting my goal of not just entertaining but educating readers on the history of film when I posted a sneak peak of this comic and asked if anyone could identify the film and had at least one person suggest it was American Horror Story. Freaks, Tod Browning’s 1932 horror classic, is the inspiration for that season of AHS, Freakshow. And by “inspiration”, I mean total and complete rip off of plot, character and setting. As the old saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so you should hear Tod Browning’s corpse practically spinning in its grave with the fullest flush of flattery that Ryan Murphy could provide. Like Freakshow, Freaks also featured a mixed cast of actual human outliers as well as more traditional actors and actresses. Unlike the modern version, all of the unusual folks in Freaks were actual circus performers as that was often the only sort of employment many people with physical oddities could get during that era.

Freaks is one of those films that practically defines the term “problematic.” Is it exploitative and lurid? Oh hell yes. Is it sympathetic and does it paint the “freaks” as real human beings who do the same things in their daily lives as anybody else? Actually, yes. It’s definitely both a real product of its times and a serious boundary pusher (one might say boundary bulldozer, to be honest.) The film was so intense and violent in its depiction of the revenge that the sideshow performers take on a couple of grifters who sought to bilk, humiliate and ultimately destroy one of their brethren that MGM chopped a third of the film’s run time after audiences went ballistic at screenings across the nation. One woman even threatened to sue the studio as she insisted that the film was so disturbing that it caused her a miscarriage! Freaks was banned from screening in the UK by its censors for 30 years for its exploitation and violence. The only surviving prints of the film are the 64 minute studio approved cut and the removed footage is considered lost forever.  Freaks not only lost MGM quite a bit of money, it also virtually destroyed the career of director Tod Browning who had made quite a few popular horror films in the preceding decade, including the 1930 Bela Lugosi classic Dracula.

Tod Browning was himself a circus sideshow performer prior to his Hollywood career both in front of and behind the camera. One can only surmise that the sympathetic roles of the various “freaks” in the movie were borne out of his personal knowledge of and relationships with actual sideshow “human oddities.”

Freaks became something of a midnight movie cult classic in the 1970s and 80s and has gone on to inspire countless homages in film, television, music and art from the aforementioned American Horror Story: Freakshow to the song “Pinhead” by the Ramones to the long running alternative comic strip “Zippy the Pinhead.”