Sunday, May 8, 2011

The DDBs of "Freaks"

In a recent comment, Jon T asked for my ideas on Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), and I am happy to oblige. Freaks holds a special position in deformed destructive being theory, or DDB theory, which is the view that the purpose of horror films is to present a DDB to satisfy the audience's desire to know being. In most horror films, the deformity of the DDB (or monster) is manufactured through special effects, makeup effects, or (in the case of psychologically deformed but normal-looking killers) acting and writing. But in Freaks, set in a circus sideshow, the actors playing the DDBs are actually physically deformed. Little people, conjoined twins, people missing arms or legs (or both), microcephalic people (aka pinheads), a bearded lady, a human skeleton, a half-man/half-woman--the variations are seemingly endless.

Part of the appeal of horror movies is the interest in deformity as such. People want to see deformed beings because such a creature represents a new kind of being, and being is interesting. At the same time, people are revolted by deformity, because it is a lack of the form that the creature ought to have. Johnny Eck in Freaks is billed as the half boy because half of him is missing--he is only a head, torso, and arms. This makes him repulsive, even as he is fascinating because he runs around on his hands as if he were a new species with its own kind of locomotion.

Throughout most of Freaks, the freaks are presented sympathetically. They are shown doing normal things--eating, playing, getting married--and treating each other kindly, so that one feels they are essentially human, like us (the audience of normals). But there are hints of something menacing about them, beginning with an early warning about their code: "Offend one, and you offend them all." When two normals offend them--the beautiful performer Cleopatra and her strongman lover Hercules, who try to kill the midget Hans for his money--the freaks take brutal revenge, killing Hercules and somehow transforming Cleopatra into a freak herself: a squawking, legless chicken woman. This is the destructiveness, coupled with and rooted in deformity, that is required for a horror movie DDB.

But these are no ordinary DDBs. These are DDBs played by actors who have the actual deformities presented. If all of the deformity in Freaks were presented through makeup and CGI effects, the film would not be nearly as disturbing. What makes it gnaw at the brain is the awareness that these are real human beings with these deformities, which opens up two new channels of feeling: pity for the actors' situation, and terror that we might somehow fall into the same situation. These feelings reinforce the sense of sympathy for the freakish characters and the sense of horror when they turn Cleopatra into a freak.

Freaks, then, provokes at least a double layer of feeling in its audience--reactions to both the actors and the characters. But there is more. Confined to a sideshow world, the freaks are representations of all that is abnormal, rejected, pushed aside by the normal world. In the Depression milieu that spawned the film, they might, for example, have represented the poor and destitute. In watching Freaks, the normal audience is made to side with the marginalized and abnormal--made into one of them, or "one of us," as the freaks put it--only to find that the freaks turn violently against the normal world. Thus, the audience sides with a subversive force that turns against the world of the audience. This subversion of self further reinforces the horror of Freaks, producing a triple layer of feeling.

There is still more that could be said about this startling film, but one note will suffice for now: Freaks could not have been made in the same way during the later period when the Production Code Administration enforced censorship (1934-1968). In that time, monsters had to be destroyed at the end of a movie. In contrast, the DDBs of Freaks succeed in getting their violent revenge against the normals, and go unpunished for it. The movie closes with the hint of a happy ending for Hans and his beloved fellow midget Frieda. The DDBs win in Freaks.

George Ochoa
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films


Wes M said...

Excellent stuff George. It still astonishes me to think that Metro put this out, considering they released such wholesome entertainments like Grand Hotel and Tarzan the Ape Man the very same year as Freaks... For years MGM would hire this film out via sub-distributors so the film would not be readily identified as an MGM production. Now of course it's a classic. The irony of time...

George Ochoa said...

Thanks. You're right, FREAKS doesn't feel like an MGM film. It does, however, feel very much like a Tod Browning film, judging from his earlier productions. MGM apparently didn't realize what they were getting when they signed Browning for this movie.

Jon T said...

Very interesting, George. Thanks!!! I understand the ending was imposed by MGM on Browning after test screenings to try to blunt the subversive aspects that you discuss. The 'happy' ending shows Hans as very much the bourgeois in his rich house, which recuperates him into the 'respectable' values of wealth & privilege, whereas Browning originally ended the film on Cleo as the chicken woman (leaving the audience to ponder on the Freaks' revenge on the 'normals'.)

George Ochoa said...

It fits that MGM would try to go for some kind of happy ending. Even so, the film ends up subversive, because Hans never pays for his role in what happened to Hercules and Cleo.

Jon T said...

I agree. The tacked-on ending can't hope to resolve the issues that are explored in the film anyway!