Saturday, February 14, 2015

Post # 4 - Movie Viewing: "Freaks"

Sorry but this turned out to be really long.  It is my rambling about the film I watched this week.

I watched an the movie Freaks from 1932.  As far as I know, this movie was supposed to be a horror film and it turned to be highly controversial (maybe even banned?).  I remember us talking about paying attention to time-frames when we spoke about FDR as it relates to political and social climates of an era or moment.  So I took a moment to think about what was going on in 1932.  This film was made in the decade leading up to WWII, in the depression era, and at a time when science was probably doing a little more than just playing around with eugenics.  Nevertheless, I tried to focus-in on how dis/ability was portrayed in this film.

Right from the beginning, certain performers (I guess they would have been considered side show performers then?) were described as being "monstrosities" who lived by their "own code."  I also saw something else we touched on briefly in a prior class, where certain characters with disabilities were infantilized by other more "normal" characters.  Before the ten minute mark of this film, there is almost too many things to be attentive to if you are a someone who is viewing the film as a disability studies student.  So as I watched the film, I paid more attention to the juxtaposition of characters who might have been considered "normal" (a tall blonde performer & her masculine partner) against the characters who had visible disabilities.

I should mention for anyone that has no idea what this movie is about, that the setting is basically a carnival / traveling show.  While I watched, I though about the spectacle and how the show was viewed.  I find it interesting how some actions are perceived as being odd, while others actions are perceived as being talent.  For example, what is it that draws an audience to view some tall blonde female performer's singing or dancing "ability" on one hand, and to view the "freaks""disability" on the other?  What is it that makes show audiences think about the "freaks" performances as displays of "disability" and not "ability" like the tall blonde female performer?

To continue and attempt to clarify the example I am trying to give, I know I don't currently possess the ability to eat or drink with my feet / toes.  If I did, most be would probably find it to be odd. But isn't that kind of impressive?  Maybe audiences would be more inclined to consider such acts as "talent" or an "ability" if wasn't done out of necessity or as a way of being?  It seems like portraying difference onto one's way of being has the power to turn ability into disability.

In this film there seems to be quite an effort to illustrate difference.  There really weren't any interrelations in the film as far as friends, dating, or meaningful marriage (only as a trick for money), etc.  This one guy Hans who was very short and portrayed part of the "freaks" group had particular object of desire.  His desire was the tall blonde female performer I mentioned above, and she considered him to be a joke or, at most, "cute" in the childish sense.  At the same time, Hans has someone who is really into him- she is a very short lady similar in height with Hans.  She seems to be a really good woman, but Hans is nearly infatuated with the tall woman.

This tall blonde woman wants to marry and kill Hans because his family has a fortune.  And at some point in viewing the film, my thinking about the way people with disabilities were portrayed became a little fuzzy.  I mean basically, the people with disabilities seemed to be portrayed in a not so flattering way at times.  But at the same time, the tall blonde lady was a killer.  A killer is usually the villain in most movies and typically we see people with disabilities portrayed as villains in films.

But part of the reason my thinking became kind of fuzzy is because, when the "freaks" learn about the tall blond woman's plot, they are depicted as trying to punish her.  The "freaks" are shown crawling through the mud, hiding under stairs, and planned their own revenge.  So for me it was fuzzy for a moment when thinking about who the director intended to be "good" or "bad."  But no matter the director's intention, I have a feeling that audiences then (1932) might have turned on the "freaks" at this point an maybe started to sympathize with the tall blond lady.

To jump forward, basically to the end, the tall blond lady was transformed into a chicken-like figure and put out on display (part of a show).  So I am wondering what the message is / was?  Was punishment for her simply being turned into a "freak"or was punishment having to endure the treatment the "freaks" endured on a regular basis?  I can't answer that.  But what you take from it depends on your position as the viewer I guess.


  1. Thanks for this post Brian. This sounds like a really interesting film. I'm curious how it was received when it initially came out, particularly by people with disabilities (or if that was even discussed). It's interesting because it doesn't sound like the characters really fits into any of the prevalent disability tropes we see these days (overcoming/super crips, objects of pity/vulnerability, etc.). Also, given the technology of the time, I'm assuming the actors were all actually people with disabilities? Which is pretty uncommon these days. I'm also curious about the writer/directors' positions and personal experiences surrounding disability and what drove them to create the film.

  2. I LOVE the distinction you make between something that is odd and something that is a talent. I do think there is some merit in the difference being whether it is done for necessity or not. I'm thinking of contortionists, people who can swallow blades, etc. If the contortionist was unable to get out of a "disabled" state that person would stop being a contortionist and would become disfigured. It's as if we're okay with difference when the actor is able to be "normal" again at some point.

  3. I saw this movie when I was probably 19, so many years ago. I watched it with a mentally ill friend; it was one of his favorite movies. This movie often resonates with my disabled friends and I recall really liking it, stupidity aside. I watched a documentary around the time where the sideshow "Freaks" talked about how the sideshow was a good job for them, that they were able to have autonomy and be around other disabled people and it was better than just being on SSDI, like many disabled people are expected to do these days. Sideshows have largely closed down. I used to go to the one in Coney Island, when I lived in South Brooklyn. It would often feature "freaks" who would be considered disabled in today's parlance, doing things like blowing fire or hammering nails into their body. So it wasn't just staring at them. I loved the Sideshow and I hung out there all the time. Everyone was fascinated with tall blonde girls in the 1930s and they largely still are. That aspect of the movie is one that I do not remember from viewing it. I really dislike how often a character like that is portrayed as perfect. But as you wrote, the really was evil. Interesting.