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FREAKS Worldwide: horror and censorship

The exhibition of disfigured persons was always part of forms of popular culture. There are hints for such presentations in medieval and early modern times (Daston/Park 1998). The so-called “freak-shows” – one of the variegated attractions of the side-shows - became reorganized and also industrialized at the end of the 19th century (Friedberg 1993: 90f). The so-called “freak” was a vital part of the entertainment industry. So it was no wonder, that these disfigured persons became alsosubject of (more or less successful) feature films. By and by - with the emancipation of the cinema from a theatrical spectacle - a shift from presentation to representation can be noted.

One of the most sophisticated and well known films, which deals with this topic, is FREAKS (1932) directed by Tod Browning. Browning, who had worked at different side-shows and circuses after leaving home as a kid, was always fascinated by the atmosphere of the freak-show. Therefore also other of his movies, like THE UNHOLY THREE (1925) or THE SHOW (1927) also dealt with a similar topic. FREAKS, like all prototypical horror films, is based on a literary source, the novel “Spurs” by Tod Robbins. After rewriting the plot for the screen and intensive and difficult discussions with different members of the producer-board, Browning finally started working on this film – last but not least because of the expected profits from a horror film: “Freaks was created by MGM to benefit from the recent popularity of horror films such as DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN” (Sova 2001: 138). Not only the story, but also the style of the production – and especially the fact, that „freaks were to be played by real freaks“ (Clarens 1968: 91) – caused a sensation. But the preview of the movie turned out as a complete disaster:

On that score FREAKS was cut by MGM. The responsible producer Irving Thalberg, who had backed up Browning against the massive opposition offered by other executives of departments at MGM, supervised the shortening of almost 25 minutes. Therefore the climatic attack of the freaks at the end of the movie “in which the Strong Man was emasculated rather than eliminated” (Clarens 1968: 92) had been changed and shortened. But all of this was done in vain, because “box-office receipts were low and MGM pulled Freaks from the theatre after only two weeks” (Sova 2001: 140). Most of the important newspapers in the United States (and also in Europe) criticised Browning’s work and the censorship-authorities, who became suspicious of the huge success of horror films, reacted very fast: “Freaks was cut in some states and banned in the United Kingdom for thirty years” (Clarens 1968: 91).

Trying to turn this failure into a success Browning shot different new endings – even a happy one. But the censors in the U.S.A. and Great Britain also banned these versions, without even watching them (again). For example the Atlanta Board of Review banned the film, “labelling it ‘loathsome, obscene, grotesque, and bizarre’” (Sova 2001: 140). The interdiction of the movie lead to immense losses at MGM and destroyed Brownings reputation, who continued to make the same kind of movies (Nugent 1939: 15).

After a failed re-release under the organization of Dwain Esper in the late 1940s, which was a strange mixture of Brownings movie and some complete different scenes from works of Esper himself, the film wasn’t successfully shown until 1962 at the Venice Film festival – paradoxically Browning’s year of death.

by Thomas Ballhausen


Introduction The Case Studies Freaks Worldwide Genre and Censorship Source Edition Surrogate Production Introduction Censorship Regulations Battleship Potemkin Horror Films Conclusion Bibliography