A new kind of freak show is upon us By Fay Voshell for Christian Post Voices
When Freaks was originally debuted in 1932, director Tod Browning’s career was effectively finished. The film has since become a cult classic, but at the time, Browning’s creation was considered so shockingly exploitative of its stars that it was banned in the United Kingdom for thirty years. Many critics were utterly revolted by the portrayals of what were referred to in the popular culture of the day as “freaks of nature.”
What was the shock and outrage about?
For one thing, the cast of Freaks uninhibitedly featured microcephalics, dwarves, midgets, armless and legless men and women and the sexually anomalous; people who generally were kept hidden out of sight in institutions for the disabled or whose lives were lived out within the narrow confines of what amounted to human amusement parks.
The human beings portrayed in Freaks were not presented as mere oddities to be gazed at in sideshows. Rather, they were shown as having meaningful stories—just like the rest of the human race. They were depicted as real people with deep feelings, including passionate love and hate.
The film critic for the New York Times summarized Freaks’ plot in his column, “The Circus Side Show:”
“The story is about a midget who falls in love with a trapeze performer. She discovers that he has a fortune of his own, and marries him despite her affair with another performer and the midget’s engagement to one of his kind. At the wedding feast she insults the “freaks,” and thus incurs their enmity. She starts to poison her new husband to gain his wealth. The “freaks” learn of the attempt, and on a rainy night when the circus is bogged along the road they kill the performer and chase the woman. She herself is changed into “one of us” as a result of her experiences.
He added, “Freaks is not a picture to be easily forgotten. The reason, of course, is the underlying sense of horror, the love of the macabre that fills the circus sideshows in the first place.
There it is: The “love of the macabre.” The love of the macabre was what allowed freak shows to make money. The love of looking at “others” who invited a sick feeling of revulsion; the love of gazing at human beings who afforded a feeling of relief that the onlookers were not at all like those “freaks.”