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freaks The word ‘freaks’ generally refers to individuals or animals with physical anomalies or to sideshow entertainers able to perform acts which would be impossible or gruesomely painful for most people. For each of these groups, the title ‘freak’ is short for ‘freak of nature’. This terminology stems from a longstanding cultural belief that the usual processes of nature have set standards of normalcy for human form and ability. Freaks with physical anomalies are often called monstrosities because their deformities are congenital. Self-made freaks, on the other hand, define themselves according to their skills. These contortionists, sword-swallowers, glass-eaters, human-pincushions, geeks (those who eat live animals and raw meat), fully-tattooed men and women, and others who can safely hammer nails up their noses, refer to themselves as novelty act performers. Few exhibiting themselves as freaks before the early twentieth century found the term ‘freak’ denigrating. To a large degree, the current stigma associated with ‘freaks’ stems from the modern affiliation of physical deformity with illness.

In the historical record on freaks, from Aristotle to the twentieth century, several physical anomalies have consistently captured human interest. The most commonly cited types include cyclopes, giants, dwarves, joined twins, hermaphrodites, hirsuits and bearded women, individuals with severe skin disorders, living skeletons, the obese, and animals and humans born either without arms or legs or with extra pairs. Proclaimed animal–human mixes were also popular. Foreigners constituted another group of freaks. Sometimes freakish foreigners were purely mythical, like the reported races of men with tails. In other instances, the foreigners' freak status relied on Western European and North American fantasies of imperial and racial hierarchies. For example, nineteenth- and twentieth-century sideshow managers, doctors, and anthropologists alike described ‘freaks’ from Africa, South and Central America, the South Pacific, and Australia as the missing links in evolution, the last of the Aztecs, or savage cannibals. Known for her large buttocks and genitals, Saartjie Baartman (the Hottentot Venus) was the most famous ‘exotic savage’ in nineteenth-century Europe. Finally, there were the artificial freaks, the prime example of which was mermaids. P. T. Barnum's ‘Fejee’ Mermaid was apparently created by sewing the shaved head and torso of a red monkey onto the body of a fish.

The specific causes of many physical anomalies still remain a mystery, but present day doctors assert that most extreme cases result from genetic and chemical influences during the embryonic period, the first seven weeks of development. Dwarfism is one imperfection that doctors now trace to genetics. The thalidomide disaster of the late 1950s and early 1960s underscored the significance of toxic substances in reproduction. In this case, the thalidomide that pregnant women took to decrease nausea created a myriad of fetal deformities, including limb reduction. Doctors have also argued that maternal diabetes and multiple fertilizations increase the risk of birth defects.

Many other explanations for physical anomalies preceded today's. In ancient Greece and Rome, it was widely believed that monstrous births were caused by astrological forces or capricious gods. Interpreting deformities as portents or signs of divine displeasure continued well into the sixteenth century. As Ambroise Paré's treatise of 1537 shows, however, the Renaissance community also attributed unsightly births to the quantity and quality of seminal fluid, the size of the womb, maternal posture, heredity, accidental illness, bestiality, and maternal injury, as well as to divine or demonic influences. Since ancient times, communities have also asserted that maternal imagination and experiences could cause anomalies. Joseph Carey Merrick (the elephant man, b. 1862) revealed the persistence of this belief as he traced his deformity to the fact that his pregnant mother was nearly trampled by an elephant.

In 1981 the historians Katharine Park and Lorraine J. Daston observed that the Reformation heralded a shift away from the explanation of freaks as divine punishments. Instead, seventeenth-century communities saw freaks as relatively innocuous curiosities that revealed nature's power. By the late seventeenth century, the educated community believed in a nascent form of the embryological theory of reproduction. In addition, theories that deformities were caused by damage in utero gained momentum against the belief that anomalies were preordained and present within the seeds of life. Although philosophers and medical men continued to argue over the influence of God in human reproduction well into the nineteenth century, conceptualizing the body as a faulty biological system helped to justify the medical study of freaks. Isidore Geoffroy Saint–Hilaire's 1832 publication of Histoire général … des anomalies also marks a significant shift toward the modern study of physical anomalies. Rejecting the notion that freaks were sports of nature, Saint–Hilaire argued that teratology (the medical study of congenital monstrosity) should link normal and abnormal development.

Representations of human and animal freaks in culture are numerous. In The Odyssey, Polyphemous is one of a race of giant cyclopes. Goliath and Og, king of Bashan, are the star giants of the Bible. Japanese prints from the Edo period (1615–1867) depict a variety of freaks including a king of freaks and demonic cyclopes. In the Tempest, Shakespeare's Trinculo suggests that if he painted Caliban, he might make a good fortune exhibiting this savage to the curious. Swift's Gulliver's Travels addresses Gulliver's own exhibition as a freak. Velásquez's painting Las Meninas reflects the popularity of dwarves in seventeenth-century Spanish courts. Sixteenth-and seventeenth-century European handbills and similarly illustrated wonderbooks depict both freaks known to have lived and others that could only have been mythical. Expressing the optimism of Baconian science and hoping to record all the wonders of the natural universe, seventeenth-century elite gentlemen formed academic and philosophical societies to discuss nature's oddities. They also collected specimens of human and animal freaks in private curiosity cabinets. Others took notes on the freaks they witnessed at local fairs. Well into the nineteenth century, doctors also avidly collected freak specimens in medical college museums, exhibited these specimens and living freaks in their medical lectures, and described them in the major medical journals. Freaks also featured in twentieth-century movies such as Todd Browning's Freaks (1932) and David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980). In 1972, Diane Arbus' photographs of freaks were published posthumously in Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph.

The most notorious venue for freaks has been the travelling raree or sideshow. Cities like London and Paris were the focus markets, but showmen also travelled around the European countryside. Particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, freak shows could be quite casual, set up both inside and outside taverns. They were also common at the great fairs, the most reputed of which was the Bartholomew Fair, held at Smithfield for two weeks each year from the Middle Ages until 1855. By this time, several managers including P. T. Barnum, Uffner, Johnson, and Watson had already begun to consolidate the trade. They offered multi-starred spectacles in great rented halls, the most popular of which was the Egyptian Hall, Picadilly. Although freak shows still continue today, their age of glory ended in the 1940s. Their decline resulted from the combined effects of competition from new kinds of entertainment, the disability rights movement, and the redefinition of physical abnormality in relation to medical disease.

Within the sideshows, the balance of power between manager and freak varied. Some freaks handled their own display entirely, but most relied on business partners to advertise and schedule shows and to create the essential aura of mystery that drew audiences. Certainly some exploitation existed — freaks were kidnapped, and their corpses were sold without their permission. Nevertheless, and despite long work days, most entertainment freaks appear to have been content in their careers and to have lived in relative comfort. A few, for example the midget Charles S. Stratton (Tom Thumb), amassed great fortunes. In addition to profits from admission and from the sale of illustrated pamphlets, which recounted their life stories, skills, and physical features, exhibition freaks sometimes received gifts from private audiences. Queen Victoria was quite generous in this respect.

Audiences for the shows came from all classes, as entry fees varied according to one's class status or the time of the viewing. Most freak shows admitted women and children as well as men, although with some ‘delicate’ subjects women and children were barred. In nineteenth-century France several freak shows were banned for fear that the shocking spectacles would cause women to bear monstrous children.

Some of the more famous freaks in Western culture include the (mythical) Bird Boy of Ravenna illustrated by Paré and the two-headed Bengali boy whose joined skulls are in the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. Claude Ambroise Seurat (b. 1798) was the most famous ‘living skeleton’ and Patrick Cotter ‘O'Brien’ (b. 1760) and Chang Wow Gow (b. 1845–6) were well-known giants. The midgets ‘Tom Thumb’ (b. 1832) and his wife Lavinia Warren (b. 1841) are still the most celebrated little people. Since the exhibition of Chang and Eng Bunker (b. 1811), joined twins have also been called ‘Siamese twins’. Matthew Buchinger (b. 1674) was a skilled draftsman who had neither hands nor legs. In the tradition of armless freaks, Charles Tripp (b. 1855) performed tasks with his toes.

Heather McHold


Bogdan, R. (1988). Freak Show: presenting human oddities for amusement and profit. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Daston, L. and and Park, K. (1998). Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750. Zone Books, New York.
Gould, G. M. and and Pyle, W. L. (1896, 1956). Anomalies and curiosities of medicine. Julian Press, New York.
Wilson, D. (1993). Signs and portents: monstrous births from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. Routledge, London.

See also dwarf; elephant man; giants; monsters.
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USA, 1932

Director: Tod Browning

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Corp.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 90 minutes originally, later 64 minutes, some sources state that existing copies are 53 minutes. Released February 1932, New York and San Francisco. Filmed in Hollywood.

Producer: Irving Thalberg with Harry Sharock (some filmographies state Dwain Esper as producer, but he was responsible for the 1940s re-issue, other sources list Browning as producer); screenplay: Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon, Al Boasberg, and Edgar Allen Woolf, from the book Spurs by Clarence Tod Robbins; photography: Merritt B. Gerstad; editor: Basil Wrangell; sound engineer: Gavin Barns; art directors: Cedric Gibbons with Merrill Pye; music: Gavin Barns.

Cast: Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra); Henry Victor (Hercules); Wallace Ford (Phroso); Harry Earles (Hans); Leila Hyams (Venus); Roscoe Ates (Roscoe); Rose Dione (Mme. Tetralini); Daisy and Violet Hilton (Siamese Twins); Schlitze (Herself); Peter Robinson (Human Skeleton); Elisabeth Green (Bird Woman); Randion (Larva Man, or Living Torso); Joseph-Josephine (Androgyne); Johnny Eck (Trunk Man); Frances O'Connor and Martha Morris (Women without arms); Olga Roderich (Bearded Woman); Koo-Koo (Herself); Edward Brophy and Mat-Mac Huch (The Rollo Brothers); Angelo Rossitto (Angeleno); Daisy Earles (Frieda); Zip and Flip (Pinheads).

Award: Honored at the Venice Film Festival, 1962.



Goldbeck, Willis, and others, Freaks, in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 15 March 1981.


Thomas, John, Focus on the Horror Film, New Jersey, 1972.

Everson, William K., Classics of the Horror Film, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1974.

Skal, David J., Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning,Hollywood's Master of the Macabre, New York, 1995.


New York Times, 9 July 1932.

Variety (New York), 12 July 1932.

Geltzer, George, "Tod Browning," in Films in Review (New York), October 1953.

Romer, Jean-Claude, "Tod Browning," in Bizarre (Paris), no. 3, 1962.

Guy, Rory, "Horror: The Browning Version," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), June-July 1963.

Kael, Pauline, in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Boston, 1968.

Schmidt, K., in Kosmorama (Copenhagen), September 1972.

Savada, Eli, "Tod Browning," in Photon (New York), no. 23, 1973.

Beylie, Claude, in Ecran (Paris), July-August 1973.

Rosenthal, Stuart, "Tod Browning," in The Hollywood Professionals 4, London, 1975.

"Freaks et la critique," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), July-September 1975.

Léger, Jean-Marie, "Ni Fantastique ni 'normal'," in Avant Scène duCinéma (Paris), July-September 1975.

James, N., in Classic Film Collector (Indiana, Pennsylvania), Fall 1976.

Carcassonne, P., in Cinématographe (Paris), April 1978.

Biette, J.-C., and F. Ziolkowski, "Tod Browning and Freaks," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1978.

Cluny, C. M., "Freaks dans l'oeuvre de Tod Browning," in Cinéma (Paris), May 1978.

Sauvaget, D., in Image et Son (Paris), May 1978.

Hoberman, James, in Village Voice (New York), 17 September 1979.

Film Psychology Review (New York), Summer-Fall 1980.

"Freaks Issue," of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 15 March 1981.

Cinématographe (Paris), May 1982.

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Moorman, M., in Skoop (Amsterdam), September-October 1985.

Hodges, Albert, "Remembering Johnny Eck," in Filmfax (Evanston), no. 26, April-May 1991.

Douin, Jean-Luc, "L'horreur est humaine," in Télérama (Paris), no. 2265, 9 June 1993.

Vieira, Mark A., and Gary Morris, "Freaks: Production and Analysis," in Bright Lights (Cincinnati), no. 1, Fall 1993.

Holt, Wesley G., in Filmfax (Evanston), no. 52, September-October 1995.

Skal, David J., and Elias Savada, "'Offend One and You Offend Them All'," in Filmfax (Evanston), no. 52, September-October 1995.

Skal, David J., and Elias Savada, "'One of Us'," in Filmfax (Evanston), no. 53, November-December 1995.

Wood, Bret, "Hollywood's Sequined Lie: The Gutter Roses of Tod Browning," in Video Watchdog, no. 32, 1996.

* * *

Although it has been seldom shown in the fifty years since its introduction in 1932 as a "masterpiece of horror," Tod Browning's Freaks has achieved near-legendary cult status and continues to exert a major influence on modern attempts at the baroque film. Certainly the powers of its wedding feast sequence was not lost on Luis Buñuel when he staged the tramp's "last supper" in his 1961 Viridiana. And the works of such diverse filmmakers as Max Ophüls, Federico Fellini, and Ingmar Bergman have shown traces of the film's influence.

Today it is difficult to believe that the film was produced at MGM. It more closely resembles the kind of horror films being released during the 1930s by Universal Studios, which had in fact made a fortune with Browning's earlier Dracula, as well as James Whale's Frankenstein. However, Irving Thalberg, MGM's president, noting the success of these two efforts, purchased Clarence Robbins's grisly tale Spurs, hired Browning and, over considerable objections within the studio, adapted it for the screen as Freaks. Yet in the transition to film, the story deviated from the traditional horror format and evolved into gothic social commentary that closely resembled the kind of sociological treatments being attempted by Warner Bros. in their great gangster films of the period.

If Freaks is not totally satisfactory to audiences of today, that is perhaps due, for the most part, to the fundamental conflicts inherent in merging horror and social criticism. Although Browning was successful in portraying his deformed subjects sympathetically and causing his viewer to re-evaluate their concepts of what is normal, he succumbs to the obvious temptation to "scare the pants" off his viewers in the film's final scene. For most of the film, he portrays the freaks as human beings going about their daily rituals. (Significantly, we never see them on stage as sideshow performers.) At the wedding feast, however, when one of their number marries a "normal" person, we sense their solidarity as they go through an elaborate ritual to admit Cleo to their circle. This triggers a course of events in which the innate humanity of the freaks is juxtaposed with the inherent ugliness, evil and abnormality of the so-called normal people.

But in the film's final sequences, Browning emphasizes the physical grotesqueness of the freaks as they slither and crawl through the mud to exact their revenge on Cleo and the strong man Hercules after she has betrayed them. At the end of the film, we find that Cleo has turned into a freak herself at the hands of the little people. The scene, contrived as it is, clouds the image of the humanity of the deformed creatures by emphasizing the enormity of their vengeance, and because the costuming of Cleo as a freak is technically crude, it erodes the worthwhile themes of the film and makes its subjects objects of scorn.

Still, individual scenes, in their power and construction, provide unforgettable images and truly extend the boundaries of baroque filmmaking. The film is still today a virtual textbook on the horror film, and enough of its nobler aspirations come through to allow it to remain as undoubtedly the ultimate challenge to the old fiction that beauty is necessarily synonymous with truth. Although it was banned in many countries for its graphic depiction of this theme, it was honored in 1962 at the Venice Film Festival and has been shown periodically thereafter.

—Stephen L. Hanson

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Even among the myriad of 1930s horror films, perhaps no movie of the Great Depression was as bizarre or as disturbing as director Tod Browning's Freaks (1932). Browning built a noted film career during the 1920s on a series of collaborations with actor Lon Chaney, Sr., and he also ushered in the era of sound horror films with his highly successful Dracula (1931), starring Bela Lugosi. At MGM in 1932, Browning promised that he would direct the ultimate horror film: Freaks.

Based on the short story "Spurs" by Tod Robbins, Freaks offers a tale of circus and carnival performers who, despite their various physical deformities, exist within a kind of mutually caring family. When the dwarf Hans decides to marry the physically "normal" Cleopatra, the family accepts her as "one of us." But then they learn the truth: Cleopatra is plotting to poison Hans, inherit his money, and then marry the strong man Hercules. The film's epilogue shows her as a physically deformed sideshow act, the result of the "freaks'" vengeance.

Browning's cast, which included a "half boy" and "Siamese twins," was largely made up of actual sideshow performers who possessed a range of physical deformities. The emphasis on actual "freaks," as the studio called them, rather than the use of actors with makeup, created concern even before the film was released. By the time of its premiere, publicity hype around Freaks emphasized both the "real life" qualities of the players, as well as the oddity of a love affair between a dwarf and a "normal" woman.

The story of the film's release has become legendary, with historians generally claiming that MGM shelved Freaks due to audience outrage. The movie was even banned outright in England. While this is certainly true, what is often forgotten is that the film did receive some positive reviews and garnered strong box office receipts in some American cities, while being vilified in others. Many Depression-era audience members found the film to be little different from what they had actually seen at carnival sideshows. For those who were outraged, their alarm seems to have stemmed less from concerns over cast exploitation than from the shock of simply seeing them on screen.



Clarens, Carlos. An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films: The Classic Era, 1895–1967. 1997.

Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. 1993.

Skal, David J, with Elias Savada. Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood's Master of the Macabre. 1995.

Gary D. Rhodes

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Perhaps the most unsettling horror film to follow in the wake of Frankenstein's enormous financial success in 1931, Freaks (1932) tells the story of seemingly childlike carnival "freaks" who wreak unspeakable revenge on two able-bodied swindlers. Adapted from the Tod Robbins short story "Spurs" and directed by Tod Browning, this untidy little film shocked audiences with its use of actual disabled performers: midgets, an armless woman, a "living torso" (a man whose body ended slightly below his ribcage), and many others. Receiving mostly negative reviews and faring poorly at the boxoffice, Freaks ran afoul of censorship boards across the United States and was banned in Great Britain for three decades. After playing the exploitation-film circuit for years, it received acclaim at the 1962 Venice Film Festival and enjoyed some popularity among counterculture "freaks" during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Library of Congress honored Freaks by adding it to the National Film Registry in 1994.

—Martin F. Norden

Further Reading:

Norden, Martin F. The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1994.

Skal, David J., and Elias Savada. Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning. New York, Anchor Books, 1995.

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Freaks ★★★½ Nature's Mistakes; Forbidden Love; The Monster Show 1932

The infamous, controversial, cult-horror classic about a band of circus freaks that exact revenge upon a beautiful aerialist and her strongman lover after enduring humiliation and exploitation. Based on Ted Robbins story “Spurs.” It was meant to out-horror “Frankenstein” but was so successful that it was repeatedly banned. Browning's film may be a shocker but it is never intended to be exploitative since the “Freaks” are the only compassionate, loyal, and loving people around. 66m/B VHS, DVD . Wallace Ford, Olga Baclanova, Leila Hyams, Roscoe Ates, Harry Earles, Henry Victor, Daisy Earles, Madame Rose (Dion) Dione, Daisy Hilton, Violet Hilton; D: Tod Browning; W: Al Boasberg, Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon, Edgar Allen Woolf; C: Merritt B. Gerstad. Natl. Film Reg. ‘94.