Notes for the Thirteenth Lecture.



Escape into Horror

We have talked about "horror" films before relative to and the idea of the "eruption of the repressed". This is one definition. Another definition is that horror films show us something monsterous about ourselves and the destruction of the monster at the end of the film allows the audience to get relief that that monster in the them has been held in check. This duality of human/animalistic (monsterous) self, has expression in the famous Robert Louis Stevenson story Dr. Jekyll abd Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson of Treasure Island fame (who was NOT born in Brooklyn, but in Edinburgh, Scotland (possibly an eastern part of Brooklyn).

Freaks is one of those "one of a kind" films that defies description. Even stranger is that it was released by MGM a studio associated with light hearted musicals

The thirties saw the rise of Universal Studios horror film cycle. Starting with Dracula (1931) (Directed by Tod Browning) and then Frankenstein (1931) (James Whale) and The Mummy (Karl Freund) (1932) and continuing through The Wolfman (George Waggner) (1941). The cycle is said by some to have ended with the release of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold) in 1954. There are an incredible number of mix and match sequels with "The Son of...", "The Revenge of..." etc. The Mummy’s Hand (1940) interestingly enough has Tom Tyler, who plays Luke Plummer in Stagecoach holding forth as the Mummy himself!

The analysis of these can be seen as emblematic of the horror of the depression, although The Mummy is also seen as being stimulated by the opening of King Tut’s tomb (1922) and the resultant "curse". Egyptians, ancient or otherwise did not see mummies as monsters. It probably took a few years before the finding of the tomb and the deaths of several people associated with the excavation to work its way into popular culture (The Mummy (1932) was conceived initially as something of a science fiction film. Imhotep’s magic pool in which he shows what happened years before was originally a kind of TV screen!)

The monsters of the 30s are by and large creatures of fantasy (Vampires, Werewolves, animated mummies, odd ball scientific creations like the Frankenstein monster). Which is The monster is often perceived as something internal animalistic and dangerous and needs to be repressed. In some cases, the term "monsters from the id" seems applicable (It is also a line from Forbidden Planet (1956) (Fred M. Wilcox) as well as the title of an interesting book on horror in literature and film by Michael Jones).The death of the monster give s some security, showing that the "monster within" can be put down. Aside from thee exigencies of sequels, the monster is"done in" at the end of the film. The monsters uncertain end for sequel purposes indicates the primacy of the art! (Ford was asked about Stagecoach why the Indians didn’t just shoot the horses. His response was, "Then there would be no movie". Tod Browning’s Dracula came to the screen in 1931 some nine years after the count’s initial appearance in Murnau’s Nosferatu (Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922). Murnau’s film was nearly lost in a llegal battle with the widow of Bram Stoker whom Murnau had not approached for the rights to the story - hence the name Dracula does not occur in his film. The legal decree was that all copies of Nosferatu were to be destroyed. However as happens in these things, some copies were found and as a result, allowed the film to survive. (See E. Elias Mehrige's Shadow of the Vampire (2000))

Early horror films would have an impact in the coming years on other studios. Later in the 40’s, RKO in the USA with Val Lewton at the helm would make a series of "horror" (Lewton preferred the term "terror") films starting with Cat People (1942) to offset the Universal horror "monopoly". Hammer Studios in England would "remake" the Universal horrors largely with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

Freaks (also re-released as The Monster Story, Forbidden Love, and Nature's Mistakes)

Freaks was directed by Tod Browning

Charles Albert (Tod=death in German) Browning (July 12, 1880-Oct. 6, 1962) (unclear because Tod Robbins name is also Tod. Tod exists with one or two "d"s as a world meaning "fox" perhaps "fox hunter". Scotland it is used for a crafty, clever or wily person). The German word is read sounding like the English word "Tote" (as in "tote bag") although the "o"is read more like the "oa" in "toad". Todd occurs both as a given and family name and is probounced something like "tahd"

Browning has an interesting life story. He was born to a relatively well to do middle class working family in Kentucky. His father was bricklayer, carpenter and machinist.

Browning had an interest from childhood in circuses and carnivals, two closely related entertainments, in that they are both peripatetic They are not always on the nest of terms (circus people will take affront and being called "carnies") and of course the two have very different aspects to their business.

At 16 Browning ran away from home and joined a traveling circus. He held a number of positions starting with roustabout and moving through "barker" ("spieler") to song and dance man over a 5 year period. He wound up even working on a riverboat as a song and dance man and even performing as a contortionist. He also worked for Ringling Brothers as a clown. He also peformed an act "The Living Hypnotic Corpse" (a live burial act).

He finally became a vaudevillian.

It isn’t until 1909 that he becomes involved with film as a performer is about 50 slapstick film shorts.

In 1913 he I hired by D.W. Griffith at Biograph Studios in NYC and leaves at the same time for Hollywood. They joined the Reliance-Majestic studios.

A car accident, which involved Browning drinking, was seriously injured in an automobile accident in which one passenger was also seriously injured and another was killed. As a result of the accident his artistic life was impacted. There is a marked shift in his work which had previous to the accident been largely comical. After, his films become moralistic and seem to deal more with crime, guilt, and responsibility reflecting perhaps his own feelings about his role in the accident.

The accident seems to have ended his career as an actor an he turned to writing and directing. Griffith hired him as part of the crew for Intolerance and as assistant director writer and for a bit part as a crook.

Between the years of 1925 and 1929 Browning went to work for MGM under Irving Thalbeg. Here he starts to make some of the works he is best known for, starting with some silent films.

The first, not surprisingly is a film about a circus - The Unholy Three (1925) based on the novel (1917) of the same name by Brooklyn born Tod Robbins, who also authored "Spurs", the story on which Freaks is based

Browning collaborated with Lon Chaney on a number of films. Chaney had a interest in monsters, freaks and physically altered people with whom he invested a strong sympathetic nature his may have been caused by his parents having been deaf mutes and were often made fun of or made the brunt of jokes.

Notonly Chaney and Browning had an interest in his area but so did Thalberg who, wile at Universal, kicked off the famous Universal horror film series staring with Dracula, that would not be equaled until Hammer Studios in Britain started to remake the Universal horrors. Hammer Studios became known as "The House that Dripped Blood"

Chaney and Browning teamed up for several films together:

The Wicked Darling (1919)
Outside the Law (1920)
The Unholy Three (1925) (Silent) remade as a "talkie" 1930 by director Jack Conway
The Blackbird (1926)
The Road to Mandalay (1926)
The Unknown (1927) side show (Physical Deformity linked with sexual frustration. Regarded as best of the Browning/Chaney flms)
London after Midnight (1927) (destroyed in an MGM Vault fire 1965) A reconstruction from stills has been made) West of Zanzibar (1928) Magician made paraplegic tries for revenge
The Big City (1928) Nothing but crime film Chaney without make-up. Rivalry between gangs
Where East is East (1929) Big game trapper tried to stop half Chinese daughter from marrying a European.
His relationship with Chaney ended when Chaney died of lung cancer

Chaney's films differ from Freaks in that audiences recognized Chaney's as "make-up". The people in Freaks are clearly not in "make up" but are real.

Often in Browning's (and often Chaney's) films, physical Deformity linked with sexual frustration and is a common theme. Notice the interest in sexuality in the films, which must have been missed by totally naive censors. The human skeleton and the bearded lady have a child; there is a question about sex with the Siamese (conjoined) twins in terms of how much does own experience of the other's feelings and knowledge,


Problems from the start.

The film was shot in 1931. People at MGM were apparently made "uncomfortable" by the cast, and not allowed on the lot, but stayed in a separate tent.

"During the shoot, the film had already begun to draw disgusted reactions, resulting in MGM segregating the film's cast and crew to a separate cafeteria so that "people could get to eat in the commissary without throwing up."

(Interesting to see whose "discomfort" counts)

Filming was completed on December 16, 1931, and Browning began retakes on December 23.

In January 1932, MGM held test screenings of the film which proved disastrous: Art director Merrill Pye recalled that "Halfway through the preview, a lot of people got up and ran out. They didn't walk out. They ran out." Others reportedly became ill, or fainted; one woman who attended the screening threatened to sue MGM, claiming the film had caused her to suffer a miscarriage.

Much of this may have been publicity for the film. Remember Dracula both on Broadway and in film advertised nurses being on duty at the theaters!

Test screenings were shown in January 1932, with many members of the audience reacting negatively. They found the film too grotesque. Our old friend, Irving Thalberg, decided without consulting or getting the consent of director Browning, edited the original 90-minute feature, which was significantly cut, with additional alternate footage incorporated to help increase the running time. The final abridged cut of the film, released in February 1932, was 64 minutes; the original version no longer exists.

Reviews of the film:


Harrison's Reports wrote that "Any one who considers this entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital."

In The Kansas City Star, John C. Moffitt wrote, "There is no excuse for this picture. It took a weak mind to produce it and it takes a strong stomach to look at it."

The Hollywood Reporter called the film an "outrageous onslaught upon the feelings, the senses, the brains and the stomachs of an audience.":

Variety also published an unfavorable review, writing that the film was "sumptuously produced, admirably directed, and no cost was spared, but Metro heads failed to realize that even with a different sort of offering the story is still important. Here the story is not sufficiently strong to get and hold the interest, partly because interest cannot easily be gained for too fantastic a romance." The review went on to state that the story "does not thrill and at the same time does not please, since it is impossible for the normal man or woman to sympathize with the aspiring midget. And only in such a case will the story appeal."


The New York Times called it "excellent at times and horrible, in the strict meaning of the word, at others" as well as "a picture not to be easily forgotten."

The New York Herald Tribune wrote that it was "obviously an unhealthy and generally disagreeable work," but that "in some strange way, the picture is not only exciting, but even occasionally touching."

Columnist Louella Parsons wrote an enthusiastic report on the film, noting that "for pure sensationalism, Freaks tops any pictures yet produced... In Freaks there are monstrosities such as never before have been known. If you are normal go and see them for yourself, if not, well, use your own judgment."

The Los Angeles Times's Mark Chalon Smith declared in a 1995 retrospective review: Freaks is a wild ride, but it's not the monster-trip some say it is. It is macabre and disturbing, but Browning chose to humanize the deformed characters at the movie's shadowy center, not to demonize them." Nonetheless, the film has still been noted for its stark horror imagery in the 21st century, with Joe Morgenstern writing in 2009 that it boasts "some of the most terrifying scenes ever consigned to film." Jamie Russell of the BBC similarly observed in 2002: "It's easy to see why reactions to the film have been so strong—it's a catalogue of the abnormal, the bizarre, and the grotesque that's still as unsettling today as it was 70 years ago."

Film critic, Mark Kermode, awarded the film four out of five stars in a 2015 review, noting that, "today, Browning's sympathies are clear; if there are "freaks" on display here, they are not the versatile performers to whom the title seems to allude." Film theorist and critic Andrew Sarris echoed this sentiment, proclaiming Freaks "one of the most compassionate films ever made." Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine wrote in a 2003 retrospective that the film's moral significance has often been obscured by critical attention to its more shocking elements, noting that this "seriously underplay[s] the film's blistering humanity and the audacious aesthetic and philosophical lengths to which Browning goes to challenge the way we define beauty and abnormality."

The film show as affiliation with German expressionism in some ways

(Many circuses use German or Italian to communicate because of the performers speaking different languages.) Olga said she was first introduced to Hans and since he was born and raised in Germany, German was native to him and she could speak it as well. . In an interview she said:
"Tod Browning, I loved him. He say, "I want to make a picture with you, Olga Baclanova... Now I show you with whom you are going to play. But don't faint." I say, "Why should I faint?" So he takes me and shows me all the freaks there. First I meet the midget and he adores me because we speak German and he's from Germany. Then he shows me the girl that's like an orangutan; then a man who has a head but no legs, no nothing, just a head and a body like an egg. Then he shows me a boy who walks on his hands because he was born without feet. He shows me little by little and I could not look. I wanted to cry when I saw them. They have such nice faces, but it is so terrible... Now, after we start the picture, I like them all so much."

Thalberg had asked for a horror script and after he read it he said he certainly had gotten one. Of course, he later cuts and adds to the film without the director knowing about it. Thalberg had been at Universal and encouraged the 193o’s foray into horror starting with Dracula (1931) which Browning directed. This is shortly after the arrival of sound and sound becomes an element of horror as well (there were certainly silent horror films like Edison’s Frankenstein(1910) and Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). Sound was able to add a new dimension like howling wolves, sounds of wind, groans, screams and other tropes associated with sound horror.


Music, both diegetic and background are also, staples of horror films. Many had original music in the background. Music may add to the emotional impact of scenes as it does in Psycho for example. During filming in silent film days, small trios or combos often played during the shooting (no sound recorded), to give the actors some "mood music" to help their performances. In Freaks, Peter Robinson, the Human Skeleton plays a harmonic and Angelo Rossitto (Ageleno) plays the Shepherds music from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde - one of the great "love stories"


The cast was assembled from all over the world. Thousands of resumes apparently came in when it became known as it did through an underground network) that Browning was caasting the film with real side show performers.

Some of the cast afterwards were unhappy with the film: the most critical was Olga Roderick, the Bearded Lady. Some held she was hostile because she wanted more screen time and didn't get it.

The most positive seems to have been Johnny Eck (the half man)

Angelo Rossitto seems to have had the longest professional life in films,with about 100 films to his credit, Eight were before Freaks. The last being From a Whisper to a Scream (1987) (also known as The Offspring). He actually appears in an Orsson Welles film released in 2018 although it asshot between 1970 1nd 1976 with editing into 1980

Most of the side show cast returned to their jobs in circuses and side shows and carnivals.

Daisy, and her sister Violet Hilton had worked in vaudeville and had gained some notoriety in trying to get marriage licenses. They appeared in one more film Chained for Life a film about one conjoined twin murdering the husband who deserted her and the courts trying to deal with punishing one murdered and a conjoined twin who was not involved.


The look of the film Browning was a silent film director who did not transition well to sound. While it is often that people discuss the problems of the advent of sound as they impact actors. It also impacted directors. In silent films, directors could talk to the performers in the middle of shooting since their voices wouldn’t be recorded. With sound being recorded simultaneously with the picture that was not possible. Although Browning Dracula, with sound, he seems ill at easy with it here. What is probably the most famous scene in the film, the d Feast (as indicated by a title card from the silent film era), it is virtually a silent film sequence. There is nothing in it that you get specifically from the dialog. You can turn off the sound and still know what is going on. "Gooble Gahble" are in themselves "nonsense syllables" and almost mock the actual words that are said during the scene. It is probably the most memorable scene in the film. The film has a "revenge" motif in it as do other Browning films. Browning cinematic style in Freaks is related to German Expressionism, It has a subdued documentary-like realism with chiaroscuro shadow" for dramatic effect, especially in the caravans.

The windows in the caravan are expressionistically (albeit reasonably) slanted. The composition of the sideshow folk as the gather under the caravans makes them look menacing. They are seen between the steps huddled together in partial darkness. Angeleno’s knife polishing, and Johnny Eck’s wiping of his pistol all indicate the growing tension as Cleopatra starts to run from them.

The editing links events, often between Phroso (Wallace Ford) and Venus (Leila Hyams) and some of the side show performers. Phroso recognize his attachment to Venus and seems about to propose and the cut is to the Hilton twins as the unmarried one is about to be proposed to by a suitor.

Hints of sexuality abound (and are occasionally not what they seem). Phroso touches one of the conjoined twins, and the other (with closed eyes) knows what he did. This sets up the sequence when the man who proposed to one of the twins, kisses her and the other responds.

In the scene where Phroso is in the tub and appears "bare" and to be taking a bath, Venus approaches and looks into the tub. Finally it is revealed that Phroso is simply working in the tub with his shirt off. This is a kind of misdirection often associated with magicians, circuses and carnivals. Barnum wants posted a large sign saying “This way to the egress!” and people went to see what an “egress” was not realizing it was just another word for "exit"!

Browning borrows heavily in this sense on a kind of "trickery" he knew forom the sideshows.

The wedding banquet sequence in which Cleopatra and Hercules viciously humiliate Hans in front of his friends is "among the most discussed moments of Freaks" and according to biographer Vivian Sobchack "a masterpiece of sound and image, and utterly unique in conception and realization." The near final sequences of the film (as now released) show the freaks carrying out their "shocking" revenge. Cleopatra's fate is revealed and has been said "achieves the most sustained level of high-pitched terror of any Browning picture".. Some interpretations are:

Freaks = Outsiders
Freaks = lower class (remember Stagecoach) coming in the middle of the depression rather than the end as Stagecoach does.
Freaks = "the other"
In retrospect, numerous film critics have suggested that the film presents a starkly sympathetic portrait of its sideshow characters rather than an exploitative one, with Andrew Sarris declaring Freaks one of the "most compassionate" films ever made. Still, a number of critics have continued to take note of the film's horror elements; in 2009, Joe Morgenstern proclaimed that Freaks contains some of the most terrifying scenes in film history. Film scholars have interpreted the film as a metaphor for class conflict, reflecting the Great Depression, and it has been studied for its portrayal of people with disabilities, with theorists arguing that it presents an anti-eugenics message. This is based on the idea that "freaks" were often exhibited as "atavistic appearances of "proto human forms" The film showing their humanness argues against the idea that infants born with severe deformities should be in a sense, "retroactively aborted". In an early scene with the two men walking through the woods, one says to the other that children like that should be smothered at birth. This is a form of the "eugenics" argument.

The film has been highly influential, has become a cult classic, and, in 1994, was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry, which seeks to preserve films that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Freaks is the film that is most explicit about the closeness of equability and retribution. The freaks live by a simple and unequivocal code that one imagines might be the crux of Browning's ideal for society: 'Offend one of them, and offend them all'...if anyone attempts to harm or take advantage of one of their number, the entire colony responds quickly and surely to mete out appropriate punishment.

The question is raised as to whether one can capitalize on "misfits" and still claim to pity them? The answer to that is very complicated.(Like "anti-war movies" - doesn't putting something on the screen glorify it, so ow can a film be anti-war?) Many of the so called freaks, made fairly good livings. The "Doll" family (Hans and Frieda who actually come from a "small" family are actually brother and sister not husband and wife as some assume. They and two other siblings had a house that was furnished with furniture that was basically for children but was comfortable for them. It is doubtful they could have done than in any other job, as some have pointed out.

Another of the "little people" not in then film, says "exploitation can only be decided by the person. In effect, if the person does not feel exploited they are not, and other people shouldn't going around saying they are.(This was certainly the case with the Hilton sisters who had to fight legal battles to get their own independence from people who had bought them from their parents, when the two were quite young. One the other hand a book called Freak Show written by a social worker chronicles the events involving a little person who was working a side show and was forcibly removed because some woman had complained he was being exploited. He was certainly mentally competent and raised a ruckus about being removed without even consulting with him on what he wanted (which was to stay in the show).

The criticism of Freaks often mentions the eponymous freaks of the film referring ostensibly to the "freaks" in the side show. Does it? Or does it relate to Cleopatra and Hercules?