Issue 4

Real Monsters and Real Disgust: Comparing Reception of “Freaks” and “Frankenstein”

INTRODUCTION

             Scholarship surrounding Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) mostly includes discussion about public perception of disability. This discussion is certainly warranted, but I am hesitant to place sole responsibility for the film’s poor reception on said perception. Indeed, to place such emphasis on viewer attitudes about disability is to ignore systematic exploitation and “othering” of disabled people on behalf of MGM and the film itself. Therefore, with this essay I aim to provide a more complete historical analysis. I cannot claim to provide a complete historical analysis, because it is probably contentious to claim whether any historical analysis is fully complete. Nonetheless, I hope this essay suffices to make the point that discussing the 1930s attitude about disability is not enough when doing this reception study. I make this point by referencing a few different historical elements. Firstly, I raise James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) as a foil case because both films were characterized as “gruesome” the PCA files, and because they both have similar themes about ‘who the real monster is.’ Secondly, I compare the discussions among the MPPDA, the marketing and advertisements, and the public reception of both films in order to determine key differences. Thirdly, I provide a short reading of narrative and theme in light these comparisons. Overall, this analysis pushes back not only on literature that focuses on perception of disability, but also identifies some potential triggers of such poor reception within the film itself, and thus asserts that Freaks does a poor job in challenging that perception.

LITERATURE REVIEW: PCA FILES AND ADVERTISEMENTS

The main issues surrounding Frankenstein in the PCA files were arguably blasphemy and the morality and aesthetics of gruesomeness. Blasphemy is not of much importance in this context, for while the film’s theme is mostly concerned with what happens when man plays God, the reviews were notably focused on the “pitiable” monster featured in a sea of “normal” people. For this reason, I will primarily be focusing on the morality and the aesthetics of gruesomeness, which will in turn situate me in a more comfortable position to compare Frankenstein‘s reception to Freaks’.

Released in 1931 as the second installation of Universal’s Horror Cycle, Frankenstein enjoyed an even greater commercial success than its booming predecessor, Dracula. This is to say that the production companies saw the early thirties as a thriving environment for these “nightmare pictures.”[1] However, as noted in the production code files, the men at the MPPDA became worried about the ever-growing popularity of these “gruesome” films. In a letter to Will Hays in 1932, Jason Joy wrote,

If something equally as effective could be done about the so-called horror films we’d be very much happier than we are…Talking out here won’t have much effect, with the cycle as successful as it is, although our voices haven’t been stilled…How could it be otherwise is children go to these pictures and have the jitters, followed by nightmares?…Not only is there a future economic consideration, but maybe there is a real moral responsibility…[2]

Because these gruesome films were beyond the specifications of the production code, there was no real way for the MPPDA to corral them. That being said, there was worry about what the commercial popularity of the horror films could drive the production companies to produce, and what the eventual public reaction to the slew of these films would be. It would be plausible to assume that the files for Freaks discussed much of the same concerns, probably even more so because by the time Freaks was in production and about to be released many of the production companies were already producing more horror films.[3] Indeed, the horror trend did eventually die out, reportedly because during the Great Depression audiences sought to leave the theater happy rather than frightened,[4] along with reports in 1938 of children actually being traumatized by showings of Frankenstein.[5] But when horror was beginning to take off during the early thirties, there was nothing written in the Production Code that could stop the so-called gruesomeness. Joy tried warning Carl Laemmle Jr., the producer of Frankenstein, to keep the level of gruesomeness to a minimum, despite dealing with such a gruesome theme. He wrote,

We think you ought to keep thoroughly in mind during the production of this picture that the telling of a story with a theme as gruesome as this will not permit the use of superlative incidents of the same character. Therefore, considerations should be given to the scene…showing the body of the hanged man, and scene…showing the dwarf hanging by a chain; and the several other gruesome incidents which make up a part of the script[6].

Joy’s concerns were not unwarranted; of the thirty-two scenes that Kansas demanded be removed, all but one had to do with “gruesome” images, such as the scene where Maria is murdered, or the “close-up of scar on wrist where hand is sewed on.”[7]

One can wonder how state censorship boards and the MPPDA reacted to the gruesome aesthetics in Freaks. Considering that there is already a large amount of imagery of the “freaks” present in the 60-minute version, the original 90-minute film was probably beyond the imagination of a 1930s audience. While it is unfortunate that I am unable to compare the PCA files of both films, I think comparing how these two films advertised will give a good indication of how “gruesomeness” was used to draw in audiences. In short, Frankenstein‘s advertisements tried to balance the level of gruesomeness with thrill, while Freaks indulged in distastefulness by exploiting the “freaks” in an attempt to use gruesomeness as its main selling point. As seen in the Frankenstein advertisements, a “friendly warning” was typically issued that stated that this film was not for the weak of heart, only for those who sought to be thrilled by this 100-year-old tale. The monster was featured in all of the ads, which indicates that Universal was interested in using its gruesome image to draw in audiences. However, the monster was often paired with either the reminder that this is an old fictional story, or with a reminder that the film is about “the man that made a monster.” With these reminders, it seems to suggest that the ends justify the means: this is clearly a morality-play—despite Universal claiming there was “no moral intended”[8]—about what happens when man tries to play God. The gruesomeness is a consequence of the theme, which is something the audience was aware of going into the film because of the advertisements and general knowledge of the story.

While Frankenstein may have benefitted from being a well-known story, understanding the poor reception of Freaks should not rely on the fact that Freaks is an original film. The gruesomeness in Freaks is not necessarily a consequence of the theme, but rather of its realism. Instead of a gruesome theme causing gruesome images, these gruesome images (of the freaks) acted as a catalyst to push the story forward. The advertisements pushed this too; not ever indicating what the narrative of the film will be, MGM often posed humiliating questions about the freaks on their advertisements. “Can a full grown normal woman marry a dwarf?” was the most common of phrases used, but others include: “Do the Siamese twins have love lives?”; “Do the Pinheads think?”; and, “What sex is the half-man half-woman?”[9] Furthermore, the ads promise a “vengeance” of the “strange creatures,” even going far enough to call them “half-humans.” With the opening of Freaks seemingly confessing itself to be a morality-play, with its prologue expressing how these “monstrosities” have been banished to the fringes of society because of their lack of beauty, and therefore deserve sympathy, the marketing that MGM employed stands in direct contradiction. MGM used the freaks as grotesques in order to promise an hour of freakery to the audience, and unlike Frankenstein‘s advertisements does not issue a warning of base morals that the characters will ensue, but rather aligns itself with the mocking Cleopatra and Hercules, and therefore participates in the activity that it preaches as base.

 

PUBLIC RECEPTION, EXPLOITATION, AND ETHICS

     The differences in advertisements between the films are mirrored in the public’s reception of both, which had both similarities and differences. For starters, the word “pity” was used to describe both the freaks and Frankenstein’s monster, and if the word was not used it was evoked. P.S. Harrison, of Harrison’s Reviews, wrote the following about Freaks:

And then the poor creatures that are displayed; one feels such extreme pity for them that ever if there were something to the story it could not possibly entertain any one, because of the revulsion one feels in watching them. Any one who considers this entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital[10].

Comparing this review to his of Frankenstein is noticeably different in tone:

The make-up of the monster is remarkable. The body is supposed to be made up of parts of different dead bodies and one can see the seams where these parts have been sewed together. And the pathetic position of this monster, not knowing what it wanted, together with its brutal power, is understood by the spectator for it is shown that the abnormal brain of a criminal had been put into his head instead of the brain of a normal person[11].

The mere use of the words “creature” and “monster” already speaks volumes about how the freaks and Frankenstein’s monster are perceived as subhuman. However, it is remarkably different how despite both being “pitiable,” Freaks’ characters evoked revulsion while Frankenstein was able to evoke sympathy for its main attraction. This trend continued throughout reviews of both films. For Variety, Cecelia Ager wrote,

The ladies that search out Frankenstein know exactly what they’re looking for…Longing to be shocked, yearning to suffer fear…imagine their astonishment when they find pity intruding itself…Poor, hideous thing, he didn’t ask to be born…He wreaks terrible vengeance, but it was still a more terrible thing to create him[12].

While for Freaks, Variety published in “The Woman’s Angle,”

Ladies will not forgive this picture’s cruel and crude bad taste in exploiting human deformity for sensationalism[13].

The juxtaposition of these differing reviews raises the question of why audience members were able to lovingly attach themselves to Frankenstein while at the same time be disgusted by Freaks despite both having pitiable characters. Really, this question becomes an even larger enigma when one considers that the ontological properties of the “monsters” in both films, and also of the films themselves, are remarkably similar.

To begin at the most superficial level, both Frankenstein’s monster and the freaks are “freaks-of-nature.” They are presented as subhuman because their physical deformity sets them apart from the other “normal” humans around them. Furthermore, they are presented as dangerous, and in particular dangerous to the “normals” around them who taunt and humiliate them (in Freaks, this would be Cleopatra and Hercules; in Frankenstein this would be Fritz, who taunts him with fire, and also the doctor, who abandons his creation). In an attempt to shows the abnormal’s attack on the normal, the normal is first presented as attacking the abnormal for being precisely that. Indeed, it appears both films use similar methods to set-up a dichotomy between the normal and abnormal.

In her essay, “Monsters, Disgust, and Fascination,” Susan L. Feagin claims that one is not frightened by sets of properties, rather things with said properties.[14] For instance, both blood and fake blood have a similar set of ontological properties (red, sticky, a staining agent, etc.), but only real blood incites fear. This is applicable here, because the relevant ontological properties identify these “freaks-of-nature” as things belonging to such group. However, there must be something particularly distinct about each’s ontology that makes the freaks the object of disgust. It is necessarily true that this difference is presented between Frankenstein’s monster and the group of freaks, and not any individual freak, because among the reviews they were always referred to as a whole. However, while there is nothing particularly different between the characters themselves, there was something completely different between Boris Karloff and the freaks, such that Karloff’s character exists only in its diegetic world and the freaks live in the actual world.

This may seem clear, and perhaps easy to argue that the public was revolted by real disability. As the film tries to deconstruct the binaries of “normal” and “abnormal,” revulsion is exactly Cleopatra’s response when the freaks claim her as “one of them.” Cleopatra is clearly repulsed by the idea of her and the freaks being on equal footing. Indeed, this is the route Robin Larsen and Beth Haller take, and they rely on the analysis that while many honestly reported feeling revulsion, it was often paired with anger at MGM and Browning for exploiting the “hurt, disfigured, and suffering humanity.”[15] I am inclined to agree with their analysis that the audience’s reaction is problematic in itself; speaking about the freaks as pitiable dehumanizes and “others” them. Looking at these actors in this way denies them any sense of autonomy and the ability to make their own choices. They are perceived in the same way the audience perceives Frankenstein’s monster: not having a place in the world and unable to make decisions for themselves. And in that case, the anger directed toward MGM for exploiting the freaks echoes the anger the audience felt toward Dr. Frankenstein: the monsters’ vengeance was terrible, but it was still more terrible to use them to further one’s own gain.

What is disappointing about this analysis, however, is that it fails to put proper emphasis on the fact that the film is exploitative. Larsen and Haller cite at least one scholar who calls the film “humane,” and thinks the film presents a clear argument as to why the freaks adopt an ethical code to protect one another above all else.[16] While they do not explicitly agree, that seems to be their position as well. However, it is worth asking, why should this film be considered humane? It is not difficult to recognize the problematic views of disability that a 1930s audience would have had, but even with this consideration, reducing the reception of Freaks down to mere disgust of disability is misguided. As stated above, both Frankenstein and Freaks present a binary between the normal and the abnormal, but in Freaks this binary has not been resolved. Indeed, Larsen and Haller assert themselves, “popularization of eugenics theories after World War I fostered fears that misshapen humans would inherit violent or degenerate tendencies…”[17] but does the film not promote precisely that idea—that the freaks will go to any length to protect their own? Not only does the vengeance of the freaks reinforce these fears, it also reinforces the binary.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that the freaks turning Cleopatra into a duck woman was unreasonable, at best. Despite the value of delivering an intriguing and spectacular conclusion to the film, turning a woman into a duck strikes me as short of “humane.” I am not trying to argue that the freaks were necessarily in the wrong for seeking vengeance or that Cleopatra did not deserve her fate. Rather, note the difference between presenting a reason why something is the way that it is (e.g. the freaks’ moral code), and giving a (moral) justification for that reason why. Freaks offers no justification as to why their code of ethics is acceptable, and in choosing not to it does nothing to resolve the normal/abnormal binary. It could be argued that Frankenstein also does not provide any justification for the status quo—in fact, the (attempted) killing of Frankenstein’s monster is actually a means to the ‘normal’ end. Nonetheless, what Frankenstein does is prompt the audience to reflect on the moral value of what they just witnessed. The monster’s screams of agony as he burns and the long shot of the windmill that bears a striking similarity to a burning cross indicate that the film does not want its viewers to applaud at the demise of the monster. With the exception of the short scene with Hans expressing regret over what happened with Cleopatra, Freaks does not ask much of its audience besides asking them to merely accept the division between the normal and abnormal world and code of ethics. Frankenstein is a true morality play, and while Freaks tries to be it is too busy being a tale of vengeance.

CONCLUSION

Context is vital to historical analysis, and what I have aimed to do with this essay is give an account of various different historical elements. At the heart of Freaks’ reception is a recognition that it was extremely poor, especially compared to other “gruesome” films of the time—I have attempted to give an ontological account of the monsters to explain why that would be. Despite agreeing with other scholars that the 1930s audience was probably disturbed at the sight of the disabled on screen, I believe this falls short of providing a more complete analysis. More precisely: scholars have provided reasons why an audience would have responded poorly to the film—most often by explaining the attitudes about disability. But it is worth asking whether or not the film bears some responsibility in evoking this poor reception. One should recognize the systematic push toward othering the freaks in virtue of acknowledging the demeaning ways the film was marketed. Furthermore, the narrative does not actively resolve the binary between normal and abnormal, which itself probably helped to prompt reactionary disgust. Gruesome films such as Frankenstein and Freaks inspire so much awe, even to an audience watching nearly ninety years in the future. However, to call the film “humane” is to give into the awe. Clearly subversive and intriguing, Freaks does raise questions about the relationship between normality and abnormality, but scholars should be honest about its methods of doing so in determining whether or not it succeeds in challenging that relationship—especially within its own cultural and historical context.

[1] Thomas Patrick. Doherty, Pre-code Hollywood: sex, immorality, and insurrection in American cinema, 1930-1934 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 295.

[2] Joy to Hays, December 5, 1931, PCA File, Frankenstein.

[3] Thomas Patrick. Doherty, Pre-code Hollywood: sex, immorality, and insurrection in American cinema, 1930-1934 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 297.

[4] Thomas Patrick. Doherty, Pre-code Hollywood: sex, immorality, and insurrection in American cinema, 1930-1934 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 298.

[5] Katherine K. Vandervoort to Milliken, November 13, 1938, PCA File, Frankenstein.

[6] Joy to Laemmle Jr., August 18, 1931, PCA File, Frankenstein.

[7] Kansas State Censor Board, December 10, 1931, PCA File, Frankenstein

[8] Fithian to Joy, PCA File, Frankenstein

[9] Thomas Patrick. Doherty, Pre-code Hollywood: sex, immorality, and insurrection in American cinema, 1930-1934 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 317.

[10] “Freaks.” Harrison’s Reports, July 16, 1932, 114.

[11] “Frankenstein.” Harrison’s Reports, December 12, 1931, 198.

[12] “Going Places,” By Cecilia Ager. Variety, December 8, 1931, 47.

[13] “The Woman’s Angle,” Variety, July 12, 1932, 15.

[14] Susan L. Feagin, “Monsters, disgust and fascination.” Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition 65 (1/2): 79.

[15] Robin Larsen, and Beth A. Haller. 2002. Public reception of real disability: The case of freaks. Journal of Popular Film and Television 29 (4): 170.

[16] Ibid., 167.

[17] Ibid., 168.