Introducing the Robert Bell Ball! — Ball State English Department

Finals week may be getting close, but the end of the school year also brings with it warmer weather (though we’re never sure in Indiana) and the Robert Bell Ball. The Robert Bell Ball is a social event and department awards ceremony we’re hosting on April 29 from 4-5pm. At the ceremony, 11 different scholarships will be awarded … Continue reading Introducing the Robert Bell Ball!

via Introducing the Robert Bell Ball! — Ball State English Department

Come check us out at this “magical” event!

Bodies in Bondage: Slavery and Entertainment in the Civil War Era

By Brittany Ulman

It is well-known that, under slavery, African Americans faced harsh living conditions.  But, as slaves, they also endured the mental abuse associated with society viewing them as other to a white norm.  Because of dehumanizing racist views, they were even sometimes classified as “freaks” and put on display, like Saartjie Baartman was in Britain.  In fact, P.T. Barnum’s first human exhibit was a slave named Joice Heth.  Through slave narratives like that of Frederick Douglass, modern America is shown the connections between the treatment of slaves and the treatment of freaks in the Civil War era; both groups were never viewed as normal or even fully human.

Slaves suffered appalling conditions; they were dehumanized as the “inferior” race and thus viewed as not deserving of the unalienable rights established in the Declaration of Independence.  Instead, they were considered property and had no say  as to what happened to them or their families. Similarly, freaks often were involuntarily placed in circuses and side shows to act as entertainment for others who were considered “normal.”  For those within the “supreme” race, slaves and freaks alike were simply “bodies, without the humanity social structures confer upon more ordinary people” (Thomson 57).  As long as these “unordinary heathens” could be used in some “useful” way, their masters rarely considered the people underneath the “abnormal” surface.  Because slaves and freaks were viewed as inhuman, the “superior” race did not believe that they experienced emotions like other humans would, but were either unaware or did not care what was happening to them.  In freak shows, “ exoticized disabled people and people of color functioned as physical opposites of the idealized American” (Thomson 65).

Because of the interesting anomalies that their bodies represented, slaves and freaks were often used as entertainment for their owners which resulted in their masters’ monetary profit. Douglass mentions in his narrative that slave-owners enjoyed spending Sundays watching their slaves box or wrestle, both for their own enjoyment and so the slaves did not participate in more “civilized” activities (Douglass 372). During these matches, slave-owners watched their slaves beat each other as if they were voluntarily participating in the sport. It was the common misperception that because of slaves’ differences in appearance, they were not fully human, but may be the missing link between humans and animals; this arose from the idea that African Americans were barbaric animals and not civilized human beings. Because society was so interested in discovering this connection between man and beast, they were willing to view African Americans as a combination of man and animal–a combination that favored animalistic characteristics. Some even classified African Americans as monsters due to their uncivilized similarities to animals.  This connection to monsters refers back to the original meaning of the word which shares a root word with “demonstrate”–a term that can be translated as “to show” (Thomson 56).    So because of this, like many others who were not considered “normal,” millions of African Americans in the Civil War era were subjected to the harsh realities of what it meant to be diverse.

Outside of the required strenuous physical labor, slaves also faced the possibility of being slashed by a whip, chased by bloodhounds, or branded like cattle—sometimes just for their owners’ pleasure (Jacobs 244). Masters used this treatment as a way to prove their “normalcy” and superiority over their slaves by showing that they possessed the power and the slaves did not. Spectators at freak shows also often either ogled at the performers or would need to physically touch them in some way, whether that be by poking them with a stick or pinching their skin, to further prove these “freaks” deviation from the accepted norm.

Sometimes, Africans and African Americans were forced to be both slaves and freaks, put on display for others’ entertainment, much like Saartjie Baartman in Britain.  In 1810, a young African woman’s father and husband were slaughtered by a European army, and she was kidnapped and dragged to Britain to act as entertainment for the masses (Elkins).  Simply because of the size of her posterior and skin color, Baartman was displayed in front of hundreds of passers-by and could be poked with a stick (Frith).  Even after her death in 1815, Baartman could not be left in peace as her body was subjected to Georges Léopold Chrétien Cuvier’s sexualized dissection, which was later put on display at the Museum of Man in Paris (Elkins, Frith).  Not until years later was Baartman allowed to finally rest in peace, as she was given an appropriate burial like she originally deserved.  Even in her death, Baartman could not achieve peace like others, but a death filled with entertainment for humans much like animal dissections are used as some sort of entertainment.

Instances such as these gave those in Civil War America the justification they so desperately sought for their heinous actions towards “different” individuals. For white Americans, Baartman’s mistreatment represented slavery’s potential. Since freaks and slaves alike were not considered whole human beings, their owners viewed enslavement as permission to use their “property” as they saw fit

Americans even went onto having their own Saartjie Baartman in 1935 with P.T. Barnum’s purchase of Joice Heth (Thomson 59). Heth, a blind and crippled African American elderly woman, was put on display in Philadelphia as a representation of what America should strive not to be physically. Heth was also used as an example for “proper” women to reference in order to “sharpen the distinction between the ideal Englishwoman and her physical and cultural opposite” (Thomson 56).  While this display of Heth and her “freakish” body warned American society about what is “abnormal,” it also stripped Heth of any ounce of humanity that she held. Because she was put on display as a “freak” of nature, Heth became solely what her body represented and not the person that she truly was. Much of slavery can be connected to masters’ infatuation with the “abnormal” characteristics of the slave’s body.  In an explanation of what the freak show presents to its consumers, Thomson states that society’s obsession with physicality “descended from a tradition of reading the extraordinary body that can be traced back to the earliest human representation” (56).  Therefore, slaves and freaks were used as entertainment for their masters based on the way in which their bodies deviated from the “norm.”  Furthermore, as with the death of Baartman, Heth was also publicly dissected by David L. Rogers following her death in 1836 (Thomson 60). Even in death, Heth was nothing more than an interesting “abnormality” to the white American public. Her life was not of enough importance to give her an appropriate burial, let alone life, because of the entertainment that her body provided.

As history progressed, African Americans witnessed exactly what it meant to be different. For Booker T. Washington, staying at a hotel for a night after their coach breaking down was an arduous task, one which resulted in sleeping under an elevated sidewalk in the midst of winter (566). Instances like this occurred despite millions of slaves and freaks involuntarily sacrificing blood, sweat, happiness, and a livelihood to their masters.  And despite surrendering all of those things, many African Americans and people with disabilities still faced discrimination.  Throughout the decades, “abnormal” people constantly asked, “Your country? How came it yours?” (DuBois 758). Slaves as young as six were forced to see themselves as not deserving of the same life and opportunities as the white children they played with. Girls as young as ten were subjected to being put on display due to their “larger than life” entertainment value.  A difference in appearance segregated a world and generated generations of resentment. This animosity has dwindled over the years, but it unfortunately has never completely faded. Its presence is forever felt in actions, words, and movements—the concept of “freakishness” will continue to exist within those who fail to see difference does not signify inequality.


Works Cited:

Douglass, Frederick.  “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.”  The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Vol. 1. 3rd ed.  New

York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.  326-393. Print.

DuBois, W.E.B.  “The Souls of Black Folk.”  The Norton Anthology of African American

Literature.  Vol. 1.  3rd ed.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.  687-760.


Elkins, Caroline.  “A Life Exposed.”  New York Times.  New York Times, 14 Jan. 2007.  Web.

12 Feb. 2016.

Frith, Susan.  “Searching for Sara Baartman.”  John Hopkins Magazine.  John Hopkins

University, June 2009.  Web.  12 Feb. 2016.

Jacobs, Harriet.  “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.”  The Norton Anthology of African

American Literature.  Vol. 1.  3rd ed.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.

221-261.  Print.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland.  Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American

Literature and Culture. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.  Print.

Washington, Booker T.  “Up From Slavery.”  The Norton Anthology of African American

Literature.  Vol. 1.  3rd ed.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.  548-572.


American Horror Story Freak Show: A Current Adaptation of Tod Browning’s “Freaks”

By Olivia Germann

The freak shows of America may not exist in their original forms today, but their memories live on in film. The quintessential film Freaks is not only considered to be a groundbreaking film, but also one that redefined the genre of horror. Using real performers from the freak show, the movie caused a sensation among viewers and invited both criticism and praise from the masses.

Released in 1932, the film was quickly banned in multiple countries, and many movie theaters refused to show it, describing the nature of the film as disgusting and unfit for viewing (Wilson). While initial responses were mixed, when it was re-released to a new audience, it took its place of honor in the horror hall of fame. Freaks defined a genre of film and inspired many works to follow. One particular television show, American Horror Story, has taken much of its inspiration from Freaks and not only makes frequent references to the film but incorporates many of the same elements that made Freaks so groundbreaking; this makes American Horror Story season four, Freakshow, a modern adaptation of Browning’s movie.

Just as Freaks showcased people who actually performed in the freak show, American Horror Story chose to use actors with rare conditions that would have enabled them to perform as “freaks” in the days of the classic freak show. The show showcases the smallest woman on earth, a woman with no legs, and a man with phocomelia (who performs as a flipper boy), as well as another little person. The film Freaks was able to use people who were actual performers in the freakshow. Creator of American Horror Story Ryan Murphy greatly admired how Freaks stayed authentic in a time where disabilities were often hidden and covered up, he attempted to do the same for American Horror Story. The show was treated as a “period piece,” formed and shaped by intense research done by Mark Worthington in order to create the authentic atmosphere that Freaks had (Stack).

American Horror Story also had to live up to what David Church, acclaimed film critic, saw as the progressive nature of Freaks. According to Church, Freaks was progressive in that it used the “normal” characters as stand-ins for normate audience members in order to show the similarity between the audience and the “freaks.” He points out, “Nondisabled people often engage in mundane conversation with the freaks in these scenes, but the speaker is typically off-screen, leaving the lone freak framed front and center in a stationary shot.” (7) This tactic is also used in American Horror Story as the audience gets to see the innermost workings of the freak show with scenes of celebration and sickness, as well as typical chores such as cooking and cleaning. Such scenes allow the audience to get to know and love the members of the freak show.

In this way, American Horror Story becomes more than a story about “psycho clowns, bearded ladies and lobster hands” (Venable) but one with heart. Too long have people with physical differences been treated as though they are second-class citizens or less than human. The horror genre offers an avenue in which people are willing to watch characters different from the norm and then the show maneuvers the audience into sympathizing with them. For example, American Horror Story introduces multiple love stories between both “freaks” and normates, forcing the audience to view love in a different way. We swoon for the love of Jimmy Darling the Lobster Boy and the con artist Esmerelda. It is impossible to not feel emotional as you watch members of the show that you loved and cherished brutally murdered and killed. To demonstrate that this imitation of Freaks is a purposeful move done by the show, the movie Freaks itself plays in the background as the horrifying plot carries out; slaughtering characters left and right leaving you heartbroken over the mass of bodies left in the show’s wake. When Freaks originally hit the theatres, it was considered monstrous for its depictions of murder and violence that were far tamer than the first fifteen minutes of the carnage in American Horror Story, showing just how far the show went live up to the legacy Freaks began.

But while Church may see Freaks as a progressive piece, it has been highly criticized for reaffirming harmful stereotypes. Especially in the ending, which shows the once beautiful Cleopatra turned into the very thing she detested, a “freak.” The television show also has a complication of interests: while in many ways the film pushes back against stereotypes and tries to make strides toward recognition of human rights, there are still moments where the freaks are presented two dimensionally or used as a gag instead of an actual character. For example, Desiree, a woman with three breasts, is initially portrayed as a strong and independent woman. But, by the end of the show, she declares that all she wants is surgery to make her body “normal” and a nice husband with the typical American life. Picket fence included. It is in these instances that both Freaks and American Horror Story may seem to support these stereotypes. But, in reality, they are trying to capture not only a cultural phenomenon but also a time period and a specific group of people. These “complications” of the progressive nature serve as reminders of how people with disabilities are often treated and the limited options they have had over time. For Desiree, marriage may seem the least progressive (and even anti-feminist) route. But in the time period the show is set, it’s a reasonable way for her to escape the freak show and live the type of life she’s been denied.

The entire show is chock full of blood, gore, torture, and pure fear that Freaks could never have attempted in its day and age. So for those who have a strong stomach, and a love for horror, both pieces are a must see. While Freaks still holds up in the scare factor to today’s shows and movies, modern fans will love how American Horror Story takes the old and makes it new and even more frightening than before. American Horror Story Freak Show is available for streaming now on both Netflix and Hulu and Freaks is available on Amazon Video.


Works Cited

Church, David. “Freakery, Cult Films, and the Problem of Ambivalence.” Journal of Film and Video 63.1 (2011): 03-17. Web.

Freaks. Dir. Tod Browning. 1932. DVD.

Murphy, Ryan. American Horror Story. Television.

Stack, Tim. “Ryan Murphy on ‘AHS: Freak Show‘: ‘This Season, Once You Die, You’re Dead'” Entertainment Weekly. 15 Sept. 2014. Web.

Venable, Nick. “American Horror Story Freak Show Review: The Most Grotesquely Fun And Bizarre Season Yet.” Cinema Blend. 2015. Web.

Wilson, Karina. “Freaks 1932.” Horror Film History. 2005. Web.