Deconstruction of the norm in Tod Browning's "Freaks"

Seminar Paper, 2014

17 Pages, Grade: 1,3



List of contents

1. Introduction

2. Context

3. Negative Associations
3.1. Freak’s preface
3.2. The monster in history

4. Deconstruction and conceptualization
4.1. Terms and conceptualization of “monster/ freak” and “normal”
4.2. Deconstruction of the norm

5. Tools helping the deconstruction
5.1. Names
5.2. The camera
5.3. Deconstruction by pictures

6. Exploitation

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This paper is about Tod Browning’s controversial movie Freaks. It serves to explain how the movie Freaks1, deconstructs what is understood as the category of “normal” people. What leads the viewer to judge the “normals” as such in the beginning of the movie is going to be examined throughout this work.

This paper illustrates what is understood as “monster” and what the function of this constructed borderline between “normals” and “freaks” is. Therefore it is looked at the meaning of deformity in history. It is going to be analyzed how the viewer is introduced into the movie by the preface.

At the film’s turning point (wedding banquet), what is firstly presented to the viewer as “freak” suddenly is understood as “normal”. How this deconstruction of the “freak” proceeds is going to be described in the following.

In the movie, terms for referring to disabled people play an important role in determining how the viewer perceives the characters that are presented. Already the movie title Freaks is very provocative for it is the term describing a failed product of procreation. Throughout this paper the term “freaks” is going to be used. No other terms like “disabled” or “handicapped” appeared more reasonable as the term “freak” for it expresses best how the assumed category of the “freak” is a construct and dependent on the condition of a relation, in addition it is connected to perspectives. From an anthropological perspective it is always recommended, in case of doubt, to call a group by its self-imposed name (see page 2). Moreover the term “freak” refers to the relation of a person whose deviation from the norm is used for the entertainment of others and the person who is entertained. This describes best that this category is a construct and underlines that to be a “freak” is not primarily a body condition but rather a social relation (Gebhard 140).

As main sources primarily works by Sarah Dellmann are going to be used as she came closest to what should be pointed out in this work. The aim is to take her thoughts a little bit further and in addition to include different opinions on how the subject of the “norm” and the “abnormal” is treated and finally if and how it is deconstructed in Freaks. Furthermore this work explains how the names and the camera help to deconstruct the norm. Some examples are going to be illustrated with photos of the movie. Finally this work is going to discuss if Freaks is an exploitation movie or not.

2. Context

For his movie Browning cast “real life freaks” (a term established by the sideshow community and the “freaks” themselves) in his movie. Especially concerning the aspect of actors the movie production company Metro-Golwyn-Mayer knew, before even publishing the movie that it would be controversial and problematic- but still something more shocking than the movie Frankenstein was needed (Norden 115).

The movie Freaks is based on the short story Spurs (which was also the working title of the film), by Clarence Aaron Robbins, (known professionally as Tod Robbins) which was printed for the first time in 1917, in Munsey’s Magazine. Freaks adopts the married-to-a-midget motif of Spurs and the idea of a boisterous wedding party as a turning point (Skal and Savada 146) MGM acquired the rights to the story in 1923, for $8000 (The Missing Link 2000).

The consequence of the shock’s dimension were the certain efforts made, to ban the picture from the public. John C. Moffitt outraged remark expresses the state of mind of many in 1932:

There is no excuse for this picture. It took a weak mind to produce it and it takes a strong stomach to look at it. The reason it was made, was to make money. The reason liquor was made, was to make money. [...] In Freaks the movies make their great way to National censorship (Skal and Savada 178).

As a contrasting juxtaposition Charles E. Lewis clarifies: “I found it to be an interesting, and entertaining picture and I did not have nightmares, nor did I attempt to murder any of my relatives.” By this statement he tried to express the exaggerated opinion of the public, concerning Freaks.

Tod Browning himself lived and worked with a travelling circus, which certainly influenced on how he perceived the “freaks” he then later worked with for his movie (Skal and Savada 35).

This might be one of the reasons he made the movie the way he did, with its imbedded message of “freaks” being humans, with a facet of feelings, which does not differ from any other person. In this regard the movie stresses how the everyday life problems are certainly not very different from that of “normal” people.

3. Negative Associations

3.1. Freak’s preface

The movie Freaks begins with an introductive preface text that warns the viewer of what is going to follow. Why it was thought to be necessary to warn viewers initially could be explained by the context of the time of 1933. How shocking the movie was, is reflected by the above mentioned articles of the year the movie was published.

The Time understood Freaks as “one of the most macabre pictures ever filmed” and that “it doubtless contains more misfits of humanity than were ever gathered together in the combined shows of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey.”2

Charles E. Lewis, who wrote for the Motions Picture Herald however stated “If Freaks has caused a furor in certain censor circles the fault lies in the manner in which it was campaigned to the public.” About Cleopatra’s poisoning scene it was said that it instructed the viewer of how to perform a crime, by which it gave reason to be censored (Skal and Savada 180).

In the prologue, at the very beginning of the movie the characteristics of monstrosity are associated with the “freaks” appearing in the movie but they are successfully fended off during the film (Gebhardt 138): “Before proceeding with the showing of this HIGHLY UNUSUAL ATTRACTION, we present the most startling horror story of the ABNORMAL and the UNWANTED (Movie Freaks special message prologue 0.06 min. - 2.22 min.).”

The preface moreover encourages the viewer to commiserate with the “freaks” by explaining that:

The accident of abnormal birth was considered a disgrace and malformed children were placed out in the elements to die. If, per chance, one of these freaks of nature survived, he was always regarded with suspicion. Society shunned him because of his deformity, and a family so hampered was always ashamed of the curse put upon it (Freaks special message prologue 0.48 min. - 1.08 min.).

To conclude, the viewer is encouraged to regard the “freaks” not as equal but as wretched creatures. Finally the prologue states the circus “freaks” were to be regarded as a united group (“they”) and that they were “all alike” (Markotic 66).

3.2. The monster in history

In human history handicapped persons were often associated with evil. Coming close to people with marks of deformity was believed to bring harm and handicapped persons were regarded as direful. Of fear and refusal towards the “freaks” in many cultures the immediate killing was recommended to escape the threat of doom (Müller 48).

In Der Krüppel (German: The Cripple) Müller reports that some groups of “Primitive people” advised the instant killing of a new born baby with visible anomalies, as the ultimate solution. Already Sokrates was afraid to be fooled by an illusion of a new born baby and convinced his surrounding to foremost let a specialist verify the authenticity of a child. In case of the identification of a “monster” the mother was supposed to get rid of the child as soon as possible. The regulation not to raise a child with abnormalities likewise was obeyed by the Romans (48).

A poll of the 60s, conducted in Germany, proofed the general public to believe it was only righteous to “deliver” deformed human beings from their misfortune by putting them to death (Müller 50).

Human features evaluated as “monstrously” scare people because they seem strange, but at the same time there is a certain fascination and curiosity due to the supposedly “otherness”. Cabinets of curiosities, the circus and horror movies proof this as a fact. That many people feel attracted by sensations, is best portrayed in the movie Freaks.


1 Later names of the movie, by Dwain Esper were Nature’s Mistake, Forbidden Love and The Monster Show (Skal and Savada 305)

2 One of the most famous American circus shows ever (Circus Historical Society, Inc. 2008).

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Deconstruction of the norm in Tod Browning's "Freaks"
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für England- und Amerikastudien)
The American Carnival
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ISBN (Book)
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Tod Browning, Freaks, Deconstruction of the norm, Horror, Movie, 30s movies, Horrorfilm, Freaks 1932, Tod Robbins, Kuriositätenkabinett, circus, Zirkus, Spurs, MGM, curiosity, Dracula
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Anonymous, 2014, Deconstruction of the norm in Tod Browning's "Freaks", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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