The upcoming fourth season of American Horror Story is called FreakShow and, as the title intones, will involve circus sideshow performers. Immediately, I thought of the Tod Browning movie, Freaks, and wondered how/if the old movie will influence the tone and feel of American Horror Story. Just the teaser trailer, linked below, hints at a homage to Freaks.
I don’t want to reveal what that image makes me think of in relation to Freaks because it might give too much away about Freaks and I don’t want to, because for all horror aficionados, Freaks deserves a watch.
Tod Browning’s Freaks came out in 1932. That fact in of itself is shocking because the movie, even by today’s standards, is terrifying. This movie did not need gory special effects to make its horror felt by viewers. Bravo ranked it number 15 in its 100 scariest movies of all time. The original version of the movie was never released, considered too shocking, and no longer exists or so they say. One of the cut scenes concerns a man singing in falsetto and that is all I’ll say about that! Tod Browning’s career apparently suffered from making the movie and never recovered. This is the man who directed Dracula with Bela Lugosi. For Freaks, Browning derived his inspiration from actual experience, having joined a traveling circus at sixteen.
At the start of Freaks, a sideshow barker beckons customers to visit the sideshow. One woman looks into a box and screams at what she sees inside. The barker explains how the horror in the box was once a beautiful and talented trapeze artist, Cleopatra. The rest of the movie shows how Cleopatra and her lover (the future falsetto mentioned above) conspired for her to seduce and marry sideshow midget Hans after learning of his large inheritance.
Browning takes his time establishing the “normalcy” of the deformed “freaks” via vignettes, showing them eating, drinking, hanging laundry: normal acts shown in an odd light given they are done by people without arms, legs, etc. The “freaks” are kind to each other and pose no threat while the “normal” people plot to take poor Hans’ fortune.
Once Hans marries Cleopatra, the tone of the movie takes a sharp left turn into weirds-ville. No wonder the 1930s movie goers freaked out. We have Koo Koo the Bird Girl who shimmies her hips on the table in crude burlesque form. At one point, Cleopatra takes her midget hubby Hans on her back for a horsey ride. From here on out, tension builds as the sideshow performers suspect something’s up and keep a constant vigil on their friend Hans, peeking through windows, catching Cleopatra trying to poison Hans. The sideshow performers, discovering her plot, chase her and attack her in a gruesome, unseen confrontation, culminating in her becoming a sideshow “freak” herself.
The film has been criticized and praised. Some saw it as a commentary on Hollywood’s treatment of its talent like sideshow performers, as trashy exploitation of the actual sideshow performers, and as a grim morality tale. I like to think Browning, who had actually worked with sideshow performers wanted to portray them in a sympathetic light, demonstrate how you can’t judge a book by its cover, and that the sideshow performers aren’t freaks after all. Regardless, once seen, Freaks is never forgotten.
The actors in Freaks were actual side show performers with real deformities. Here’s a picture of some of the performers who played in the movie. When I was writing Necromancer’s Seduction, my merry trio, Ruby, the necromancer; Kara, the witch; and Adam, the revenant, went to a carnival and shared thoughts on whether supernaturals once maybe sought refuge in circus side shows. They repeat one of the famous lines from the movie, still referenced in pop culture today. Here’s the scene from Necromancer’s Seduction. At the end, Adam says the infamous line.
“The traveling carnivals in the early nineteen hundreds were cool, especially the sideshow freaks,” Kara said as we maneuvered through the throngs of families pushing strollers and teens yelling as they assessed their possibilities of hooking up. Hawkers called out, inviting us to play ring toss or Whack- A-Mole. The smell of cinnamon from frying churros warmed the cool night air around us.
“You looking for a new job?” I asked.
“You know, some of the old circus and carnival freaks were supernaturals,” she said.
“That’s kind of depressing. So was the hairy man a werewolf?”
“I don’t know, but maybe it wasn’t so depressing. The carnivals allowed them to come out of hiding, to a certain extent.”
She bumped into me to avoid being hit by a kid running to get on the Twist-O-Rama ride.
“Why would they like being gawked at? Treated like a freak for being themselves?” I asked.
“Did you ever see the old black and white movie Freaks about the circus sideshow freaks?” she asked. “The non-freak trapeze artist and her boyfriend schemed to kill one of the midgets because he was rich. She pretended to love him and married him.”
“Gobble, gobble, we accept her, one of us,” Adam said in a squeaky voice. “That’s one of the best movie lines ever. They cast real people with deformities as the sideshow freaks.”
“That movie was horrifying in ways horror directors today could never imitate,” I said, images from the movie vivid in my mind. When the sideshow freaks found out that the trapeze artist planned to kill their midget friend, they attacked her, turning her into a deformed freak. “They don’t make movies like that anymore.”