If you’re sitting at a computer (which I can only assume you are), it is best that you start off watching this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBXyB7niEc0.
What you’ve just seen is a clip from Tod Browning’s film Freaks. It shows the wedding dinner of Hans – a midget – and Cleopatra, the gorgeous trapeze artist he has just married. Hans’ fellow “freaks” are chanting what has become a cult mantra: “We accept her, we accept her. One of us, one of us. Gooble gobble, gooble gobble.”
What Hans doesn’t know is that Cleopatra and her equally ill-intentioned lover are about to attempt to poison him, thus claiming his significant inheritance. Cleopatra, then, by harming Hans, violates the “Code of the Freaks.”
This doesn’t end well for her. And, thus, we have the climax of Freaks.
Tod Browning, the film’s director, came to Freaks after a rousing success with Dracula, played by Bela Lugosi. He’d been hoping to bring Tod Robbins’ short story “Spurs” to the silver screen as early as 1927; this story, as per the plot of Freaks, follows a wealthy midget who marries a malicious trapeze artist.
Browning insisted on casting real-life sideshow performers in the film, including the Hilton sisters. Other performers involved included:
Josephine Joseph, as “Half Woman-Half Man”
Johnny Eck, as “Half Boy”
Prince Randian, as “The Living Torso”
Frances O’Connor, as “Armless Girl”
Olga Roderick, as “Bearded Lady”
Jenny Lee Snow, as “Pinhead Zip”
Elvira Snow, as “Pinhead Pip”
Performers, as this list implies, were credited in conjunction with what would have drawn an audience in a sideshow setting.
Filmed in 1931, Freaks was produced and released by MGM in 1932 and caused a riot of sorts. What appeared before audiences was cut significantly from Browning’s original cut. However, the film was still very negatively received; it recorded a loss of $164,000, an exorbitant sum in 1932.
Critics expressed repulsion and indignance. For instance, Harrison’s Reports wrote with vitriol: "Any one who considers this entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital." A newspaper in Kansas City, around the same time, published a review that declared: "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 film was banned in the United Kingdom for decades, as it was considered to be overly exploitative.
Browning’s career ultimately never recovered – it is, in fact, generally accepted that the shock of Freaks brought his once-illustrious career to an early end. However, Freaks has seen resurgence as a cult film and has seen new appreciation. Rotten Tomatoes, a film review website, has stated: “Time has been kind to this horror legend: Freaks manages to frighten, shock, and even touch viewers in ways that contemporary viewers missed." The film has also been spoofed on South Park and The Simpsons.