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Freaks: The true horror movie from 1932

Updated on April 30, 2015
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The ultimate horror movie

Freaks is not for the faint hearted. When it was released in 1932 and shown in theaters, members of the audience fled. Indeed, in the UK it was banned. It created mayhem.

Yet it is a remarkable portrayal of what we perceive - what is 'normal' and what is a freak'? I'm not sure that this is 'officially' a horror movie, but it certainly is horrific.

Made using real sideshow performers

When I was at college, back in the seventies, a few of us used to go to a small local cinema that showed the unusual - indie movies, foreign films with subtitles and so on.

One day there was a ripple of excitement - 'They are going to show Freaks'. I hadn't heard of it but was told that it was a cult horror classic, made in 1932. Oh boy, what a film.

A remarkable but thought provoking film using the cast of a freak show

A hundred, hundred and fifty years ago it was quite common (although unbearably sad) that people born with handicaps, or conditions that meant they were regarded as 'freaks', were often sold when they were children to freak shows, side shows, carnivals and circuses. I suppose it could be argued that this gave them a better life.

The freak show and circus life

Director and producer Tod Browning had been brought up with this life. I imagine that to him, and other physically-'normal' circus people, the 'freaks' were just a part of their lives. But when Browning decided to make this film, he opted to use real people from sideshows and freak shows. It is that fact that makes this film so horrific and that had theater audiences running for the exit doors.


Physically and mentally challenged

That's a good politically-correct word, isn't it? Challenged? But that wasn't a phrase that was known in 1932.

Many of the performers in Freaks would today be cared for in institutions and medical facilities. In those days, the ones who made it as performers were the lucky ones.

The movie

Amongst the 'challenged' performers one, a male midget, had a large inheritance. Two 'normal' performers plot to relieve him of this and as the film progresses,the audience begins to wonder who actually are the 'freaks'; the deformed and handicapped or the so-called 'normal' people?

One of the conspirators is a beautiful young woman but what is true beauty after all?

The trailer

Watch the movie's trailer

Was Browning exploiting these people? Does the fact that it was 1932 make it acceptable? Who are really the 'freaks'? Watch the trailer.

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No makeup, no special effects

When you watch this movie, it's important to remember that none of the 'freak' characters are created using special effects or any of the computer trickery we see today.

When we see co-joined twins, they really are.

The 'human torso' was a well-known side show character. Born with no limbs, he could roll and light a cigarette using just his mouth.

The women on the left were born with microcephaly, but were referred to as 'the pinheads'. Another woman in the film has no arms but performs day-to-day tasks with her feet. There are numerous 'small people' and many of the characters suffered from growth deficiencies that also stunted their learning abilities.

Were they exploited or, back in the 1930s, did they have a better life in a circus than they would have had in a primitive institution?

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What do you think about this?

What do you think? It's a tricky question isn't it and I'm still not sure - even after all these years - exactly what I think about the morality and the acceptability of using people with physical differences in film.

Of course,in these enlightened days we see no reason why people who are less physically able can't be entertainers - or indeed go into any profession at all as long as their challenges can be accommodated and they can perform their jobs well. This is how it should be.

But were the 'freaks' in this movie being exploited? Was it better or worse than the freak shows that accompanied funfairs and circuses?

Let me know your opinion below.

© 2013 Jackie Jackson

What do you think?

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    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @JohnTannahill: I think that students are the ones who make it cult-ish. Probably because of those very questions.

    • JohnTannahill profile image

      John Tannahill 3 years ago from Somewhere in England

      I saw this film many years ago when I was at college. I've asked myself all these sorts of questions and I'm afraid i still don't know the answers. Maybe that's what makes it so interesting.

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @fullofshoes: Very much so. Thanks for visiting.

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      fullofshoes 3 years ago

      @BritFlorida: just thinking about it makes me wonder....about society. Just getting my blog up and running... and posting this. I'll let you know when it's done! :)

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @fullofshoes: It's very disturbing, isn't it? The fact that there are no special effects makes it even more so.

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      fullofshoes 3 years ago

      excellent review.... and a disturbing movie...

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @rainmaker2013: It's an amazing trailer, isn't it? And it only shows a fraction of the film. It has certainly become a cult movie these days (well, it has been since the 1970s) and is truly fascinating - and scary :)

    • rainmaker2013 profile image

      rainmaker2013 4 years ago

      Wow! I loved the trailer to this movie. I have to watch it now as an avid movie lover. I never heard of this film even when I went to film school or in my film history class. I am glad you brought out in the spotlight. Thanks!

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @LisaMarieGabriel: Funny you should say that because that's exactly what we were discussing last night. There are many disabled actors these days (and people who would have previously been referred to as 'freaks') so we're more accustomed to seeing them in films than 1930s audiences were. I'm sure that I saw somewhere that there are several actors (possibly in the UK) that have Down's Syndrome.

    • LisaMarieGabriel profile image

      Lisa Marie Gabriel 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      It was honest, I suppose. I haven't seen this film of course, but modern day drama casts disabled people playing disabled roles so I don't find the concept that weird.

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @MaggiePowell: It's a hard choice isn't it? I have to believe that some parents sold their children to the circus thinking that they would have a better life. Whether that's true or not, I don't know.

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      MaggiePowell 4 years ago

      Hard to say... the circus was degrading, but the institutions where prisons.