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31 Days of Horror: ‘Freaks’ sets the stage for physically deformed villains

31 Days of Horror: ‘Freaks’ sets the stage for physically deformed villains


Written by Tod Robbins
Directed by Tod Browning
USA, 1932

For the love of beauty is a deep-seated urge which dates back to the beginning of civilization. The revulsion with which we view the abnormal, the malformed, and the mutilated is the result of long conditioning by our forefathers.” – Introduction, Freaks

Tod Browning’s cult film depicting the terrors of sideshow performers, both how they are perceived by the public and the acts of violence they are driven to commit, sets an unusual and intriguing precedent for future horror cinema tropes.

Freaks initially portrays the titular troupe with unique deformities as unsuspecting prey to two of the carnival’s “normal” performers and lovers, Cleopatra the trapeze artist (Olga Baclanova) and Hercules the strong man (Henry Victor). Cleopatra’s plan to marry and murder Hans the dwarf man (Harry Earles) for his large inheritance victimizes the condition of the “freaks,” placing them at the center of a series of events that leads to their own undoing as well as hers. Gorgeous and deceptive, Cleopatra uses Hans’ humanity against him, taking advantage of his ability to love her, while cruelly rejecting his right to be respected and treated like a human being. Cleopatra embodies the society of her day, which viewed individuals with physical abnormalities as worthless objects meant to be used for amusement and personal gain or hidden away in shame from the public eye. As the story reaches its climax, the once-innocent creatures of misfortune take on a more sinister identity. Forced to protect their own, the freaks shed their vulnerability by embracing their menacing appearance, chasing after the two schemers in the dark of night through the mud and brush, running, limping, and crawling, more like monsters than men.

Self-preservation is a factor in the freaks’ motivation for harming Cleopatra and Hercules, but the brutal maiming of Cleopatra, later dubbed the ‘The Human Duck’ for her “webbed” (melted) hands and face and appearance of having no legs (admittedly low-budget effects), hardly justifies their cruelty. It is this turn from victim to villainous figure that these characters as a whole act as a precursor to the modern horror antagonist.

Freaks_03 (compressed) (redo)

Generally fueled by resentment toward society’s moral standards and a thirst for revenge against those who did them wrong, typical physically handicapped villains fail to gain the audience’s sympathy despite their plight. In addition to their homicidal impulses, their appearance and narrow-minded focus on their tormented history continues to alienate them from the victims and the viewer, making them inhuman atrocities.

Browning’s original objective, to enlighten and educate the public on the humanity and abilities of the physically disabled, was eclipsed by the negative response early audiences had to merely seeing the misshapen performers on screen, an unfortunate result of society’s twisted association of the broken and unsightly with the demonic and terrifying. Even though the performers are shown as a lively, tight-knit group for the majority of the picture, the element of darkness enshrouding the medical cases from which each actor suffered and their attack on the beautiful people – the most gruesome scenes being cut from the film entirely – was enough to have the film banned in several countries and American states.

Dramatizing the mundane is customary in filmmaking, and with disabilities, a lack of public knowledge has benefited the deformed villain trope and made it a long-lasting figure in cinematic history. It is the final moments that earn this film its place within the genre. Building up to a sequence definitive of monster horror, Freaks contributes an underlying sense of suspicion towards the hideous and works to further establish the concept of deformed villains: victims of ignorance, intolerance, and the cruelty of human nature.

– Amanda Williams