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Like AHS Freak Show? Try Tod Browning’s Freaks.

If you have been enjoying this season of American Horror Story (AHS) as much as I have, you may not have the patience to wait until Wednesday for more freakiness. I certainly don’t. And while I have been pouring over old horror classics in my attempt to become an expert in horror, I keep seeing reference to Tod Browning’s Freaks. I finally watched it and found an amazing number of parallels between the two stories.

About the Movie Freaks

Tod Browning was a director at the top of his game when he directed and produced the feature film Freaks in 1932. Just the year before, his movie Dracula starring Bel Lugosi had swept the nation with amazing success.

Browning had worked in the circus before becoming a director. He even performed daring acts himself, including being buried alive in order to be “resurrected” before a paying crowd.  With Freaks, he wanted to represent the true world of circus-folk in the 1930s. He used real freaks and performers from the era, seeking out performers from freak shows across the United States.

Unfortunately, audiences and censors couldn’t handle the grotesque nature of the plot and the deformities of some of the characters. Freaks was banned in many countries, including the UK. It was also banned in many cities across the U.S. Many copies of the movie were actively destroyed, including the original cut of the film.

Similarities Between AHS and Freaks


It is strange that what was banned just over 80 years ago is now fine for a TV program. Times certainly change. Just like American Horror Story: Freak Show, the movie Freaks includes:

1. Siamese Twins

In Freaks, the Hilton sisters played themselves. Daisy and Violet Hilton were twins conjoined at the hip and were popular stars on the vaudeville circuit.

Violent and Daisy Hilton, conjoined sisters, in Freaks.

Violent and Daisy Hilton, conjoined sisters, in Freaks.

Right now, on Netflix instant watch, there is a terrific documentary about the lives of these two sisters, who were exploited throughout their lives. It is called Bound by Flesh, and it cast a new light on the types of issues freaks had to face as entertainment changed in the middle of the 20th century.

2. Little People

Much of the plot of Freaks centers around a couple of little people, Hans and Frieda. That pair, while engaged in the movie, were actually real life brother and sister. The were part of a quartet of midget siblings who were known as the “doll family” given their small stature.

hand and frieda in Freaks

Real life brother and sister played a central role in Freaks.

3. Pinheads

Microcephaly is a real neurodevelopment disorder that causes an enlarged cranium, stunted intellectual development and shorter lifespan. In Freaks and in AHS: Freak Show, the characters are known as pinheads. Tod Browning’s Freaks showcased one of the more famous pinheads of the day, Schlitzie. He even gets talking time on-screen, though it is difficult to understand what she is saying.


Schlitzie the pinhead in Freaks.

4. A Hermaphrodite

Like Angela Bassett’s character in AHS, there was also a hermaphrodite in Freaks. He/she was known as Josephine Joseph and claimed to be half man/half woman. There is no known evidence that this was actually the case, but his/her makeup was quite convincing:

josephine joseph

Josephine Joseph: half man and half woman.

5. Legless People

In AHS, the legless individual is a woman, but in Freaks the legless character was played by real-life freak Johnny Eck. Eck had a condition that left his legs and feet tiny and useless. As a result, he only grew to be 18 inches tall. He hid his legs and feet under his costume and billed himself as the “Half-Boy.”

johnny ecks

Johnny Eck as the half boy in Freaks.

Freaks also steps it up a notch, with Prince Randian, aka The Living Torso.  With no arms or legs, he does everything with his mouth. Watching him light a cigarette is downright fascinating.

prince randian

Prince Randian (on the left) with his inexplicably lit cigarette in Freaks.

Freaks also had a bearded lady, strong men, a circus owner who sounds a bit like Elsa Mars, and a variety of other performers. As a result, it is hard to take your eyes off the screen while watching Freaks.

If you like AHS: Freak Show, I highly recommend that you go watch the original Freaks. It can help tide you over until next Wednesday.

1 Comment

  1. For very recent research on Josephine Joseph go to my blog: josephineandjoseph.wordpress.com -Ray

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