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.

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Literally Aliens: Freakification on the History Channel

By Jessica Carducci

Ancient_aliens

This show is also the source of a popular meme.

Premiering just over five years ago, the American television documentary series Ancient Aliens has played an important role in popularizing  theories on extraterrestrial life. Produced by Prometheus Entertainment, the show focuses on the belief that aliens have visited – and might still be visiting – human cultures on Earth and suggests that these aliens have  influenced society, science, and religion. Unfortunately, this attempt to connect aliens with humans can have derogatory implications, and the episode “The Reptilians,” which aired July 25th, 2014,  works to dehumanize those who are physically different by interpreting congenital physical difference  as evidence of alien ancestry.

First, it must be made clear that I do not intend to criticize the beliefs of the show’s presenters,  viewers, or any others who subscribe to the  theories it presents. With its widespread popularity, Ancient Aliens has been criticized for presenting circumstantial evidence, pseudoscience, and pseudohistory as if these findings were indelible fact. It is also often derided in popular culture, such as in South Park or on the internet as a meme (KnowYourMeme). However, what this post intends to examine is the unintended consequences of this particular supposition offered up by the show, not the validity of the theories themselves.

In this particular episode, the argument is made that humans have reptilian alien ancestry and that part of this foreign DNA is still present in the human genome. As evidence for this argument, the show presents the idea that physical differences stemming from genetic mutations demonstrate reptilian origin. Unfortunately, the consequence of this claim is that it directly equates  physical variations between people with the non-human. Historically, freak shows have done this same work, by dubbing Julia Pastrana a “Bear Woman” or calling William Henry Johnson merely “What is it?” Given the history of otherness and exclusion that defines the freak show, what are the implications of connecting freaks with aliens?

On a scale from human to non-human, Jeffrey Weinstock situates both freaks and aliens somewhere in the middle (328). While freaks will always retain some connection to humanity, though, aliens have more freedom regarding their placement along this continuum. They can range from practically human themselves – such as the character of Spock from Star Trek – to completely and monstrously unfamiliar – like the Xenomorph of the Alien franchise. In this episode of Ancient Aliens then, the show is attempting to connect the human to the distant, reptilian extraterrestrial by using human diversity as a stepping stone.

The examples cited by the show demonstrate this connection between the freak and the alien. The first case mentioned is that of a young boy born with a vestigial tail in India. In his community, he has been put on display because of his difference, though not in the traditional freakshow manner; the show contends that he is viewed and worshipped as a god reborn. However, this is still a type of display that serves to separate him from the rest of his community based upon one unusual feature – the superhuman is just as removed from humanity as the freak.

The speakers on the show itself do some of the work of freakification as well. They are quick to separate the “normal” from the “freaky.” One speaker, David Wilcock, says about the boy, “He otherwise seemed normal, but he had a weird, serpent-like tail at the base of his spine.” With this, the young boy is being directly contrasted against the “norm.” The show proposes that this is indicative of leftover alien influence in the boy’s gene sequence that has somehow shone through the human – or normal – parts of his DNA. As such, difference is being equated to alien origins.

Another type of physical difference that the show mentions as evidence is ectrodactyly. As defined by the National Organization for Rare Diseases, this is a congenital disorder where the hands and/or feet are cleft, often missing central digits or with the fingers fused to form a claw-like shape (van Bokhoven). Figures with this disorder have featured prominently in the freak show circuit. Jimmy Darling – a character on  American Horror Story: Freak Show – is known as the Lobster Boy, a reference to Grady Stiles Jr., the real Lobster Boy. Stiles, along with the rest of the Lobster Family, was a popular attraction in freak shows of the twentieth century. Again, the show conflates alien ancestry with actual examples of human exhibition and freakification.

What the show is saying with this proposed theory is that while we all have alien ancestry, those who have some manner of congenital physical difference  are more alien than those who are normates. Unfortunately, this directly serves to exoticize and dehumanize these particular individuals. While I don’t believe that the show intended to belittle these people, it nonetheless partakes in a continuation of freakshow culture by displaying, freakifying, othering, and dehumanizing individuals based upon physical difference. I can only hope that, in the future, the producers of Ancient Aliens will show a greater awareness of the implications of their theorizing.

 

Works Cited

KnowYourMeme. “Know Your Meme: Ancient Aliens.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 10 April 2012. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

“The Reptilians.” Ancient Aliens. H2. 25 Jul. 2014. Television.

van Bokhoven, Hans. “Ectrodactyly Ectodermal Dysplasia Cleft Lip/Palate.” NORD. National Organization for Rare Diseases, 2012. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

Weinstock, Jeffrey A. “Freaks in Space: “Extraterrestrialism” and “Deep-Space Multiculturalism”.” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 327-337. Print.

Geeks: The Freak Show’s Bloodiest Performers

By Olivia Germann

When the word “geek” is mentioned, most people instantly imagine nerds and calculators. The term has become a label for those who are socially inept, mathematically inclined, or low on the totem pole of popularity. But a “geek” in the world of the freak show was a performer who delighted audiences with disgusting feats and tricks. While most people today associate the freak show with the exploitation of visible physical disability, the geeks were just “normal” people performing abnormal behaviors. It is because they choose to freakify themselves through their actions that they set themselves apart from the other acts of the freak show and offered audiences a chance to see people just like them reduced to “freakish” behavior. Unlike performers such as conjoined  twins or those with microcephaly, whose difference was displayed out in the open and could not be hidden, geeks looked just like their audiences, walking the fine line between normal and abnormal.

Originally from the German word “geck,” meaning fool or simpleton, the word changed in the early nineteenth century to “geek” as it’s spelled today and began to be used to describe performers that would bite the heads off of chickens (Backe). As Emma Backe points out, “The identity of the geek, therefore, has historical precedents in stigma, exclusion and nonconformity,” which explains why it was taken up to describe those with “nerdy” tendencies or poor social skills later on as the freak show died out.  

According to Doc Fred Bloodgood, a longtime worker in the circus and freak show business and one of the first implementers of the geek show,  in the early nineteenth century, geek was “…a term used around circuses and carnivals for a wild man or woman” (McNamara). The term was popularized by the best-selling novel Nightmare Alley by William Lindsey Gresham (1946) who used it to describe a wildman performer. Doc Bloodgood’s geeks performed in a pit of snakes, cavorting among the creatures and biting their heads off. They often involved the audience by blurring the line between safety and proximity. In this early geek show, the emphasis was placed on striking fear into the audience (McNamara).

A typical geek show in the mid nineteenth century would have a person on stage biting the head off of an animal and drinking its blood. Often dragged out, the act of biting off the head was the pinnacle of the performance, leaving the audience with a scene of bloodshed and death (McNamara). Men were commonly geeks, but female geeks were prized because the image of a woman partaking in such a violent act was almost unheard of. The entertainment people got in watching an “ordinary” person engage in such an activity was immense, and geek shows became a common feature of the freak show. Geek shows brought up a very valid and real fear, that any normal person (including those in the audience) could in fact become a freak. When looking at exhibits featuring people with microcephaly (known as pinheads) or those with hypertrichosis (commonly referred to as werewolf syndrome), audience members could feel comforted, knowing that they could not catch or develop such conditions. But when confronted with a geek, a person with nothing special about them save for their performance, the comfort is lost; the audience is forced to look into eyes that could very well be theirs on the freak show stage.

As the geek show grew in popularity, circuses and freak shows turned to chickens as they were relatively inexpensive and easy to acquire, as were geeks themselves. But, while we have very detailed records of freak show performers and a fascination with their lives, the same has not extended to the geeks. Unlike the “freaks” with their visible differences or ususual talents, geeks could be replaced easily. Geeks also were exposed to terrible conditions due to their work, a common complaint being broken teeth or jaws, or sickness from dealing with animals in such a close space. They also were typically paid the lowest wages since unlike the “real freaks,” geeks could be replaced at a moment’s notice. Many geeks did not actually earn a wage and instead received alcohol to feed their addictions. This was a money-saving opportunity for freak show directors and allowed them to control the performers through the amount of alcohol they were allotted. By using their addiction as a leash to keep them close to the show, the freak show gained cheap, dedicated workers who were willing to stay through horrible and demeaning treatment.

While the geek is not as prevalent in pop culture today as their freak show companions, there are still some vestiges left in our culture. The best-selling novel Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, featuring Crystal Lil as a geek, as well as the character Meep the Geek from American Horror Story on FX  offer two modern interpretations of geeks.  These two characters show just how awful and demanding the work of a geek is, with both of their stories ending rather tragically, illustrating the idea that for geeks there are no happy endings. Crystal Lil, a female Geek, may have enjoyed fame at the height of her geek career but in the end she loses most of her family as well as her sight. Meep meets a similarly dismal fate, where he is wrongfully arrested for a murder and then killed in his jail cell. These geeks’ stories, though only a modern interpretation, give a fairly accurate representation of the way in which geeks were often the scapegoats of the freak show and, in a sense, were being punished for their self-freakification. The gore category of horror films also often depicts acts that could be linked to geek performance as well. The allure of the geek is still prevalent in our culture because those who choose to freakify themselves not only pique our curiosity but show us how thin the line between normalcy and freakishness can be.

 

Works Cited

Backe, Emma. “Freaks & Geeks: A Cultural History of the Term “Geek”.”The Geek              Anthropologist. 17 Oct. 2014. Web.

McNamara, Brooks. “Talking.” The Drama Review 31.2 (1987): 39-56. Print.