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.
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.