Freaks in the Family

A dear friend sent a copy of the 1932 film, “Freaks,” banned for 30 years and finally vindicated as one of the best horror films ever made. The film used real circus “acts”—conjoined twins, dwarfs, persons with microcephaly, total amputees–who exact revenge on the able-bodied performers that scheme against them. Upon release the film was deeply reviled; MGM reported audiences literally ran out of the theatre, fainted or became ill; one woman threatened to sue the studio on grounds the viewing caused her to miscarry. Rediscovered in the 1960’s by avant-garde art houses, critics later called it everything from a pushback to eugenics (sterilize/euthanize disabled persons for their “imperfection”) to a metaphor for class conflict in the Great Depression era. Overall, today’s discussion has crowned “Freaks” a paean to disability rights.

I too was rooting for the disabled side-show characters when I watched the film this month, and who wouldn’t? The bad guys that try to trick, thieve, and torment them have beautiful bodies but grotesque characters, and their evil intentions are spread buck-naked in the film.  Where I got tripped up was on the use of the term “horror”—for my friend, this was but a tag for a genre. For me, it speaks to how persons with disabilities are seen.

It’s all about the gaze.

An incisive look at the (heterosexual) “male gaze” in film theory explains its power:

The “male gaze” invokes the sexual politics of the gaze and suggests a sexualised way of looking that empowers men and objectifies women. In the male gaze, woman is visually positioned as an “object” of heterosexual male desire. Her feelings, thoughts and her own sexual drives are less important than her being “framed” by male desire .  .  . Visual media that respond to masculine voyeurism tends to sexualise women for a male viewer . . . women are characterised by their “to-be-looked-at-ness” in cinema. Woman is “spectacle”, and man is “the bearer of the look”.

The author proceeds to embed scenes from “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “The Dark Knight Rises” to illustrate her point.

But in “Freaks,” it’s not so much where the gaze is situated, since a fine job is done entering the feelings and comraderies of the disabled persons on set. The point I can’t get past: what does its mean that the film is and was unquestioningly labeled horror-genre and not for example, crime noir?

The answer has to be that the disabled persons by their very appearances evoke horror. That one reviewer of the film noted how “monstrous bodies” repulse our psyches illustrates what sustains the adrenalin rush we call Horror in the case of this film.

Now this is where it gets personal. Since I can’t find any empathetic commentary, let me tell you what it’s like to watch Horror-genre assumptions operable in the world.

No, I am not visibly disabled. Like most of us, on the inside I have been known to feel the monstrousness of my character for the usual human nasties: rage, envy, resentment and rumination. But outwardly I hang in the “normal” world.

The truism that you’d rather the sufferer was yourself than someone you love applies here. My daughter with autism has all her limbs, and looks like any other young woman at first glance. Until you notice the tip-toeing awkward gait, the face that never learned to arrange itself in “feminine” form, or hear the too-loud voice spouting the same phrase over and over. Until her gut wrenches from irritable-bowel and she throws herself to the floor in public, bent over and screaming because she doesn’t understand why she has to repress it until she’s hidden away from . . . the Able-Bodied Gaze.

I see it: the look of Horror. The people who quicken their steps to distance from her presence. Their irritation at me for even bringing her into their purview.  The staring, staring, staring as if at a sideshow. The gaze of those horrified by the Monstrous Body because of its hidden yet frightening Monstrous Brain.

“Freaks” is definitely a film situated in the gaze of its downtrodden who have their revenge, which is why it won over audiences of a more civil-rights-minded time. But why is it called Horror? Why must I accept the majority-gaze that beholds my daughter in terror and fright? Stop kvetching, I tell myself, at least her opportunities are no longer limited to the circus! What about Special Education and the Special Olympics? Vocational Rehabilitation and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

Certainly I’m grateful for these things. Times have changed. Yet somehow the Monstrous Body/Brain remains a fear-invoking sight to the gaze that allows these gains. In response, I’m throwing down the gauntlet for one more change of heart, the greatest shift in attitude yet.

Robert Kennedy, Jr.’s Children’s Defense Health team, sums it up:

Ultimately, a 1000-fold increase in autism prevalence since the 1930s and a 25-fold increase over the past several decades should be front-page news—and prevention of any further rise in autism prevalence should be an urgent national priority.

The real horror is what’s been happening to our children in recent decades, many of them adults now with stunted futures. Disabilities from learning problems to autism spectrum disorder have been allowed to proliferate unchecked with only Pharma-funded attempts asking why, primed to accept only Pharma-profitable answers—usually some blather about genetics, which doesn’t explain epidemics. Most of the reaction at large still sees these rising numbers that strain families, education and healthcare systems as a post-modern mystery, something the scientists will surely have a breakthrough for any minute now. This indifference is not due to Covid-19, a brush-fire currently scorching the globe. The silence about autism-spectrum disorders has been with us for years even as the rates of new cases rise (1 in 54 in the US according to the CDC). The types of disabilities depicted in “Freaks” by contrast have seen no such rise.

Yet conditions such as asthma, arthritis, diabetes, and mood disorders have sharply increased too—conditions of runaway inflammation and metabolic disturbance. We feel no Horror at these manifestations though, resigning ourselves in a slightly different way: simply the price we must pay for post-modern lifestyles. When I was a kid, obesity was rare as was cancer, the latter seen mostly in the elderly.

Functional medicine approaches that aim at the root source of these issues remain marginalized, see above: Pharma’s chokehold kills innovation, desires long-term drug use, not cures.

Meanwhile the disabled, the freaks, will always be with us, we believe–and when we must look, we stare with the Able-Bodied gaze. My daughter defies gender even in frilly lace, frowns incessantly or laughs inappropriately, leaks poop and must be monitored 24 hours a day. Living in post-freak woke-world, we nonetheless throw up our hands regarding a cure, or tamp down dissent under the banner of “neuro-diversity.” But first, do no harm. These Monstrous Brains who walk among us in rising numbers are not a sideshow, though we fawn over the few achiever-savants’ incredible prowess despite their disability. Talented high-functioning individuals with autism are far fewer in number and make for heart-warming films and TV, but I read the Facebook posts of countless moms in despair because their lower-functioning child or adult at home never sleeps, rarely stops screaming, and “what will happen to them when I’m gone?”

Reality is not a movie with a cathartic ending. It is, as the man from Camelot said, a national emergency. But maybe, as with “Freaks,” some day the wheels of karma will turn. We who love these ones court patience, ever on alert for a different kind of gaze that sees, at long last, the preventable, environmentally-inflicted wound–and not the freak of nature.

3 thoughts on “Freaks in the Family”

  1. Well said, well written, understood. Unfortunately it makes me look at myself and see something I don’t want to see. It even questions, my now questionable spiritually. It does not help that I just read a book review about Malcolm X by Les Payne. Malcolm X , a black man, fostered at 13, jailed at 20 and ultimately assassinated. He stood for another marginalized group, but one we wish not to gaze at.

  2. The host of our ever-increasing dysfunctions as a nation – white nationalism, science-denying fundamentalists, impoverishment – seems to mirror the rise of autism, obesity, and the many other physical and mental breakdowns accelerated by the global Pandemic. I have to look in the mirror when reflecting on ‘the look’ and my shame at my own occasional lack of empathy. Thanks for exploring this very intimate and uncomfortable area.

    BTW the excellent recent ‘Planet of the Apes’ trilogy has many of these subjects you ponder on explored in detail. ‘Freaks’ may be a product of its time – and this series of films looks deeply into our own national psychosis.

  3. Erudition takes many forms. Reading this impresses me to no end. Thanks for the stimulating thoughts! Happy New Year!


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