Freaks, Freak Outs
and Freak Shows
A CultureMap®
by Amy K. Hughes
Published on 10/7/13
6 TOPICS / 7 CONNECTIONS

The word freak has several connotations but almost always indicates someone or something outside the norm. Human oddities have long been put on exhibition in carnivals and sideshows, and these days they turn up on reality TV programs. Frank Zappa extolled freak counterculture, high schoolers appropriated the term as a label for druggies and weirdos, and dancers have been urged to shed their inhibitions and “freak out” at the disco.

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Freaks  (Tod Browning (dir.) | film | 1932)
to  Made Freaks

The film Freaks opens with a sideshow barker leading a crowd along to see “the most amazing, the most astounding living monstrosity of all time.” An audience member leans forward to peer at the display and screams. “She was once a beautiful woman,” the barker continues. The “monstrosity” is Cleopatra, once an aerialist in this traveling circus, a cold-hearted opportunist who violated the code of ethics followed by her fellow carnies—the “freaks,” played by real sideshow performers. At the story’s disturbing close, we see the affronted carnies set upon her with knives and other weapons—to make her one of them.

A “made freak,” Cleopatra has been transformed against her will from “the peacock of the air” to a squawking creature with the head of a woman and the body of a fowl. But most made freaks, people who undergo extreme body modification, choose their transformations. Some try to compensate for a perceived defect or conform to an ideal of beauty. Others go to bizarre extremes, covering their bodies with tattoos or piercings, implanting horns in their foreheads, forking their tongues or altering their genitals. These extreme made freaks seek not to conform, but to deform.

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Freaks  (Tod Browning (dir.) | film | 1932)
to  The Elephant Man  (1862–1890 | English sideshow performer Joseph Merrick)

Freaks was cast with genuine sideshow performers: midgets, dwarves, microcephalics (“pinheads”), conjoined twins, the legless, the armless, the “human torso” (with no limbs at all), a “human skeleton,” a bearded lady and a “half-man half-woman.” The film opened to mixed reviews (declared “excellent at times and horrible…at others” by The New York Times), but because of public aversion to the performers, it was quickly pulled from circulation. Outsiders are favorite movie underdogs, but these true outsiders upset audiences and were relegated from the front of the house back to the sideshow.

The display of human curiosities on streets, in caravans and even in human zoos has a long history. In 19th-century England, for example, the Hottentot Venus (Sarah or Saartjie Baartman) and the Elephant Man (Joseph Merrick) gained fame by allowing strangers to gawk at them for coin. Merrick wrote in an autobiographical pamphlet that his deformity, which included a grotesquely enlarged and misshapen head and limbs, “was caused by my [pregnant] mother being frightened by an Elephant.” The definitive cause of Merrick’s malady remains undetermined. David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man (1980) captures the poignancy of a life ruled by what the film Freaks terms “blunders of nature.”

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Made Freaks
to  The Elephant Man  (1862–1890 | English sideshow performer Joseph Merrick)

Joseph Merrick embodied the alienation and mistreatment that befall people who live outside the norm. His own stepmother, he recalled, “taunted and sneered” and made his life “a perfect misery.” The sideshow barker in the 1932 film Freaks warns, “We [have] living, breathing monstrosities. You laugh at them, shudder at them,…but for the accident of birth, you might be even as they are.”

While today’s performance venues still showcase those born with congenital defects, such as the Black Scorpion (who has ectrodactyly, or lobster claw syndrome), more common on modern stages are made freaks, such as Lizardman, who is tattooed in green scales and has had his tongue forked, and the bewhiskered, fanged, tattooed Stalking Cat. Those who perform flaunt their differences rather than hide them from the public eye.

Merrick, forced to exhibit his disfigured body to earn a living, ended his autobiography with a quotation (from “False Greatness” by English hymnwriter Isaac Watts) that makes clear he did not embrace freakdom:

If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul;
The mind’s the standard of the man.

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Frank Zappa  (1940–1993 | American musician)
to  Freaks and Geeks  (TV show | 1999–2000)

Frank Zappa became the hyperarticulate musical spokesperson for the freak culture that arose in the 1960s and celebrated people who were different. The message of Freak Out!, the 1966 album by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, was anticonformism. The liner notes exhort, “Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget about the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you’ve got any guts.”

High schoolers, at least those portrayed in popular culture, blithely pin the label “freaks” on nonconformists (weirdos), rebels and drug users. In the TV series Freaks and Geeks, the freaks are a group of mean, stoned slackers, including those played by James Franco and Seth Rogen. Rather than rebel against their “mediocre educational system,” they disdain a fellow student, played by Linda Cardellini, for her good grades (“You’re that chick who got an A”). It is the clownish Nick (Jason Segel), the least like the sardonic Zappa, who seems closest to following Zappa’s lead: “These teachers want us to work, you know? And I say fine, I’ll work, but you gotta let me do the kind of work that I wanna do.”

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Frank Zappa  (1940–1993 | American musician)
to  Little Miss Sunshine  (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (dirs.) | film | 2006)

There are freaks, and then there is the verb to freak. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention defined a latter-day take on the verb in their liner notes for the album Freak Out!: “Freaking Out is a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricting standards of thinking, dress, and social etiquette in order to express CREATIVELY his relationship to his immediate environment and the social structure as a whole.”

“Freak out” as an exhortation to freewheeling liberation and the breaking down of inhibitions was set to a disco beat a decade later with the 1978 Chic song “Le Freak.” In 1981 Rick James’s funk song “Super Freak” embraced freakdom as kinky sexuality. A generation later, in Little Miss Sunshine, seven-year-old Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) stands in front of the television, mesmerized by the crowning of Miss America and plotting her own crack at a pageant title with a striptease to “Super Freak” as her talent. Following Zappa’s instructions to the letter, she casts off all restrictive standards of beauty and stuns her fellow tiny, freakishly hypersexualized contestants. Smiling, twirling and scandalizing a crowd right out of the reality sideshow Toddlers and Tiaras, Olive truly, ardently freaks out.

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Freaks  (Tod Browning (dir.) | film | 1932)
to  Freaks and Geeks  (TV show | 1999–2000)

The eeriest, and most portentous, scene in Freaks is the wedding dinner, after the scheming trapeze artist Cleopatra has married the midget Hans. The audience knows she plans to kill him for his inheritance. But Hans’s people, the sideshow freaks, drinking from a communal goblet, offer their consent to the union and begin chanting “we accept her, we accept her, one of us, one of us.” As the film’s prologue states, the freaks hold to an ethical code. Cleopatra’s downfall is in not heeding the credo “Offend one and you offend them all.” Cleopatra is forced to conform when the freaks make her one of them.

High school cliques, a favorite topic of film and television, are all about finding a place for oneself while simultaneously excluding and labeling others. In Freaks and Geeks the titular groups are marginalized, the first by choice, the second by the inevitable forces of teen society. But the “freaks,” while rebelling against high school rituals such as the homecoming dance, are no individualists. As Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) moves from geek to freak, she learns to conform to the freaks’ rules and rituals (e.g., disparage everything and throw a kegger whenever someone’s parents are away).

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Freaks  (Tod Browning (dir.) | film | 1932)
to  Little Miss Sunshine  (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (dirs.) | film | 2006)

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about the necessity, when traveling, to “follow this way or that, as the freak takes you.” Freaks and Little Miss Sunshine both showcase, essentially, a traveling circus: in one, carnies, in the other, the Hoover family, among them a heroin-using grandpa, a suicidal Proust scholar, a seven-year-old stripper-in-training and a teenager taking a vow of silence.

Although piloting a symbol of 1960s counterculture, a Volkswagen bus, Richard Hoover has authored a resolutely square self-help program outlining nine steps to success. In fact, Olive wants to win the Little Miss Sunshine contest in part because “Daddy hates losers.” She could have used the sage advice of Frank Zappa: “It is always advisable to be a loser if you cannot become a winner.”

The Hoovers’ status as outsiders is confirmed when, traversing the Southwest in their increasingly battered van, a motorcycle cop pulls them over. “Everybody just pretend to be normal,” Richard barks to his family. It’s obvious by the looks on their faces they realize the futility of such a directive. “The majority of freaks,” as the prologue of Freaks informs us, “are endowed with normal thoughts and emotions. Their lot is truly a heartbreaking one.”