#69. Freaks (1932)

Two nights ago, the eve of election day, I decided to pull an all-nighter so that I could be first in line at the polling station. I went to get drinks with friends at T.G.I.Friday’s and wound up staying there until they closed at 2 a.m. Then I walked a mile to a local dive called Corbett’s until about 5 a.m. Then I walked a half mile to IHOP. I fell asleep at my table and woke up to the manager wafting a meal in my face. I apologized for falling asleep and he touched my shoulder and said that it literally happens every day. I walked over to the polls at 6:30 a.m. I was second in line. Voted for Clinton, went home, slept for a bit and then went out with a friend who I’m sort of involved with, it’s complicated, and we sat at a bar in South Miami where I drank while she ate and we talked about work. She leaned forward on her stool at one point to drape an arm over me, nuzzle her face into my neck and scratch my back, and it kinda lulled me, especially when she kissed my cheek, but it’s not the kinda thing I like to talk about because I’m afraid that if somebody finds out how I get super tenderized and subdued as soon as somebody kisses me on the cheek that they’ll find some way of using it against me. Like if I’m dating somebody and she makes me mad, offends me, she’ll know she can kiss my cheek and disarm me. I won’t be able to have my say.

Anyway. I went home after a couple drinks and had dinner with my dad and then we shared a bottle of wine while watching the polls. I fell asleep at 11. Woke up at 8 a.m. to find that Donald Trump had been elected President. I found, simultaneously, the scroll of longwinded griefstruck Facebook posts. These were strangely nice to read. Saddening, but heartening. All of them were repetitive, of course, and some of them sanctimonious but it was neat to see the unity. There was even a post from an old high school friend, early in the evening, warning of the incoming storm of opinionated statuses. He referred to them as the output of “keyboard warriors”. He’s a veteran. Talks now and then about how social justice warriors are talking into a vacuum and never influencing anything. I think you’d have to define “influence” to determine whether that’s true.

Anyway. I don’t know if I’d say it was “empowering” to read these posts, since they were all pretty despondent, but there was something kinda moving, I think, to see all these people voicing themselves. Some of it was arguably narcissistic. The words “I” and “me” came up a lot. People describing the intensity of their sobs. “I can barely see the screen as I type this.” Talking about how hurt they are, shocked and disgusted. Almost like a lovesong to community. A sense of the horrors and indignities to come that we’ll all endure together.

Freaks, after Dracula, is probably Tod Browning’s most famous and influential film. Often billed as a horror movie about murderous carnival workers, it’s actually a heartfelt story about friendship and community. Stephen Fry has talked about Ulysses being a very life-affirming book. Cites, as evidence, the fact that it ends with a resounding “yes” (among other reasons, I’m sure). If that critique holds up to scrutiny then I’d suggest that Freaks’s love for humanity and companionship is made resonant in its closing lines: “I love you. I love you.” The words are spoken by one dwarf to another, two of the “freaks”, and with the tone of somebody who’s proving themselves to be an exception. In an unloving world, I love you.

The movie has a big cast but is grounded in the story of a dwarf named Hans (Harry Earles) who falls in love with a trapeze artist, Venus (Leila Hyams), and though the love isn’t reciprocated, Venus having pledged her heart to somebody else, she figures that Hans won’t live very long, given his condition, and so plots with her lover to basically marry him for the money. Then, once they’re married, she starts slipping him small doses of poison. Hans gets sick, and other performers in the circus (the eponymous Freaks, referred to as such by Venus in a fit of drunk repulsion) get wise to it. Eventually Hans discovers the truth as well, and the freaks go marching after her.

freaks cast.jpg

So there’s that horror component at the end, of a woman being chased through the rain by a cast of characters who, to a 1930s audience, must have looked pretty monstrous – but these are also the most human characters in the movie, setting out to avenge the near-murder of their friend. The horror is strangely gratifying. Browning, having worked in the circus, is obviously wise to the fact that the movie has an exploitative premise, but it isn’t the demeaning spectacle it would’ve been in the hands of a director who’d never worked personally among such people. It’s a bit of a horror movie, yes, but it’s tender as hell. He loves these characters.

And while the movie is remembered for that act of revenge at the end, the sight of Venus being turned into a “freak” herself on account of the scars, there’s something enduringly sad about Hans’s realization that his love was exploited.

Browning was encouraged to add a happy ending at the last minute, and I think that the ending works, but it also drives home that sadness when we see Hans standing before his fireplace in a cavernous mansion, alone. He’s joined by friends, and we’re led to think that he’ll soon marry one of them, but there’s something sad and forced about it.

Not sure I’d categorize this as a horror movie but, if that’s how the world’s retailers insist on filing it, it’s definitely up there with the best.


  • So curious to read this post now just after this next election. I had the impression that Trump was particularly strong in the Cuban community in Florida.

    Freaks is a great film and not horror at all, but about minority community and how everybody wants to be treated as human beings.
    On of us, one of us, one of us!


    • Agreed! I can see how it’s so sensational, though, especially for an audience of its time, that the “horror” billing is just simpler. Also, I imagine it’s the case that Tod Browning, no matter what he made, would never get out from under that label of “the horror guy”


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