The air is cooler, the nights are longer, and everything is pumpkin-flavored. The season of Halloween is upon us, so it’s time for THE UNSEEN HORROR to rise back up from the dead. Welcome back to our extensive look at little known pieces of horror to give you a fresh scare this season. And since we only have so much time, let’s get started. This year begins with one of the most unique horror films of all time. This film repulsed viewers initially, but has since been elevated to a class of it’s own– Todd Browning’s FREAKS.

The Plot

FREAKS follows the life of a group of circus performers, with the focus on (who else?) the freak show. This is a vast area of characters, such as the bearded lady, human skeleton, the ‘half-a-man’ and many more. Despite their unusual appearances, the freaks function as a family, and get along well with many of the ‘normal’ circus performers. However, the trapeze artist Cleopatra has learned that the dwarf Hans is coming into an inheritance. Together with strongman Hercules, she begins a plan to seduce and steal Hans’ large inheritance.

However, the plan falls apart at a pre-wedding feast, when the freaks welcome Cleopatra to their ranks with their signature chant (“We accept her, one of us. Gooba-gabba, gooba-gabba”). Appalled, Cleopatra openly mocks Hans and the freaks. Hans realizes he has been played for a fool and nearly poisoned by Cleopatra. He and the others plan revenge, a plan that bears more then it’s share of cruel irony.

The Influence of Real Life FREAKS

FREAKS
Courtesy of listverse.com

Critics and viewers considered FREAKS a nearly unwatchable horror in its time. One woman sued MGM on the basis that the film caused her to suffer a miscarriage. It effectively ended Todd Browning’s career (despite directing Bela Lugosi in DRACULA and several Lon Chaney shorts). The film became a subject of controversy for many years, but it’s impact became more visible as time went on.

It was often shown at midnight movie theaters, gaining a new audience in the 1960’s and 70’s. The United States National Film Registry inducted it in 1994. However, it was most visible through punk-rock pioneers the Ramones, who wrote the song ‘Pinhead’ after seeing the film. The band even incorporated the freaks’ chant into the song (changing ‘gooba-gabba’ to ‘gabba-gabba’), and the song became a staple of Ramones live shows.  The film has had a more modern influence on AMERICAN HORROR STORY’s fourth season FREAK SHOW.

FREAKS
I mean, look at it! Courtesy of Huffington Post

So what was so off-putting to those early audiences? Well, FREAKS managed to have something that no other horror movie at the time had. While actors had to play at being vampires and werewolves, the freaks in FREAKS are real. Actual dwarves and freak-show performers played these roles. Their inclusion gave the film a startling reality. At the time, it was likely too much for audiences, since horror movies usually focused on imaginary creatures for scares. However, the film focused on different subjects that made it far more memorable. It also had a different definition of what ‘monsters’ really looked like.

What Makes a Man?

Perhaps part of the reason that FREAKS gained a new life in the counter-culture of the 1960’s was because of its approach to its subject. While the film fully highlights every character’s attributes, it also takes time to humanize them. There is care to show the freaks being very much a family, and having normal qualities in their lives. The film shows the marriage of a siamese twin, and celebrates the birth of the bearded lady’s child. The film humanizes its freaks, stressing that while these people are different, they are no less human. Perhaps the best example comes early in the film, when the microcephalic ‘pinhead’ children are playing in the woods.

The film paints the real monsters as Cleopatra and Hercules. While most of the ‘normal’ performers are quite friendly to the freaks, these two show clear derision towards them. Cleopatra strings Hans along for his money, and attempts to poison him when her plan falls apart. Hercules is somewhat more tolerant, but just as eager to steal Hans’ money. Hercules attempts to murder the ‘normal’ seal-trainer girl for ratting him out. The freaks save her, and her ‘normal’ clown boyfriend, showing themselves far more tolerant and just then the handsome monsters they contend with.

FREAKS Shows The Horror of Real Monsters

Audiences of the time weren’t ready for FREAKS, but the film holds a newer meaning in modern times. It knows how to be frightening, especially when the freaks go after their tormentors. However, it focuses on a message of tolerance and humanity even in the most un-human looking people. It paints the real monsters as greedy, immoral. and intolerant people, which are more common and more indistinguishable evils then any freak could be. This film stands alone, but could be compared to films like CARRIE, where the audience can root for the monster.

And now that we’ve seen these freaks, come back next time for a world where man himself has become a monster…

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