Tod Browning’s Freaks, re-released this month, is a 1932 horror film about sideshow circus freaks that was banned in the UK for 30 years. Yet its treatment of disability is notably refreshing compared to most of what the contemporary mainstream media has to offer.
One of the film’s central themes is the concept of solidarity — rather than let themselves be divided and compete for acceptance by the “normals”, the freaks protect themselves against cruelty by adopting the principle of “an offence to one is an offence to all”.
The film struggled to get past production management and it was a commercial failure. Critics objected to the display of “physical deformity” on their screens and reviews referred to the disabled actors as “sub-human animals”.
Ironically, prejudice and mistreatment of disabled people are central to the film.
A prologue describes historical discrimination “conditioned by our forefathers” and explains, “The majority of freaks, themselves, are endowed with normal thoughts and emotions. Their lot is truly a heart-breaking one. They are forced into the most unnatural of lives.” It refers to “the many injustices done to such people” who “have no power to control their lot”.
It is the film’s apparent refusal to portray the disabled characters stereotypically that makes it so fascinating. They aren’t monsters but neither are they victims.
What comes across is their pride and defiance — ideas which would later become central motifs of the disabled people’s rights movement. The sideshow performers extend to Cleopatra, the circus beauty, the honour of being accepted as “one of us”. She is horrified and calls them “freaks”.
The disabled characters also have agency, collectivising their strength to defeat both Cleopatra and the bullying strongman, Hercules. The sympathetic non-disabled performers do not rescue them; they fight the villains alongside them.
This is in stark contrast to many modern day “inspiration” tales (such as Awakenings, Rain Man, or Stuart, A Life Backwards) that centre on a non-disabled protagonist.
The sideshow performers’ interactions with Venus the seal trainer and Phroso the clown demonstrate the possibility of positive and equal relationships between disabled and non-disabled people.
The casting of disabled actors attracted revulsion from the film’s critics. It is still routine practice today to cast non-disabled actors in disabled roles. The latest example of this is the new West End production of The Elephant Man starring the American film star Bradley Cooper. The plaudits non-disabled actors receive for their portrayals of disability increase the sense of “otherness” around impairment.
As mainstream film and TV become ever more obsessed with the perfect body image, disabled actors continue to be largely absent from the screen.
The sight of visible impairment is confined to sensationalist programmes such as Channel 4’s The Undateables, marketed on shock-value as the modern day equivalent of the freak-show.
For Freaks, Browning, a former circus contortionist himself, cast real life sideshow performers and the film’s treatment of these characters suggests genuine respect.
There is a utopian aspect to the world Browning’s Freaks inhabit. As sideshow performers they trade on their difference and their “abnormalities” in order to earn a living. However, medicalisation, traditionally associated with disability, is absent.
The sideshow performers move around, eat and drink without prosthetics or assistance. There is no pressure to conform to “normality”. Free from such intervention, they are able to enjoy ordinary lives smoking and drinking after work, engaging in adult relationships and having families.
The reality for most disabled people in the 1930s was far more oppressive. The rise of capitalism and conditions that gave rise to the phenomenon of the freak show also resulted in the mass forced incarceration of disabled people in large institutions. They were kept segregated from their communities in appalling conditions and subject to abuse.
The prologue to Freaks reveals the influence of eugenic ideas, suggesting the solution to injustice against disabled people lies in eradication of impairment through “modern science”.
In Germany, just two years after the film was released, the Nazis began their Aktion T4 programme that led to the murder of more than a quarter of a million disabled people.
The timing of the release of Freaks is poignant. The demonisation of disabled people in the 1930s was a consequence of the economic circumstances and attempts to divide the working class.
Similarly today the vilification of disabled people labelled as “benefit scroungers” has been used to divert attention from the real causes of the financial crisis.
The most interesting aspect of Tod Browning’s film is that despite the prejudices exhibited by some of the characters, there is also solidarity across both disabled and non-disabled performers and it is this which finally triumphs.
Freaks will be back in cinemas from 12 June