Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self

FREAKS

SHORT REVIEWS

by Leslie Fiedler

Simon and Schuster, $9.95

A mixture of fear, loathing, sympathy, eroticism, and “quasi-religious awe” has, according to Leslie Fiedler, characterized society’s attitude toward freaks throughout history. Fiedler has theories to account both for the fascinated horror with which freaks have traditionally been seen and for the recent vogue “freakiness” has enjoyed in pop culture.
Our perception of freaks, Fiedler argues, stems from their visual definition of the childhood confusions concerning scale (giants, dwarfs, fats, and thins), sexuality (hermaphrodites, bearded ladies), superiority to beasts (the DogFaced Boy, wild men, geeks), individuality (Siamese twins). Unlike cripples or imaginary monsters, “Only the true Freak challenges the conventional boundaries . . . between reality and illusion, experience and fantasy, fact and myth . . . those desperately maintained boundaries on which any definition of sanity ultimately depends.”
Fiedler examines actual and fictional freaks in history, religion, art, literature, and film, paying particular homage to Todd Browning’s 1933 movie Freaks, whose “nightmare images” he reincarnates in prose, and to which he styles his book “a belated tribute.” In a chapter entitled “Freaking Out,” he traces the development of the counterculture from its roots in fifties horror movies and rock ‛n’ roll to the latesixties acme of dope, underground comics, and acid rock, at which point “freakiness [became] not a fate . . . but a goal.”
Fiedler’s central interest is clearly the role of the freak in culture; whether or not one is able to share his nostalgia for the old Ten-in-One carnival sideshow, his explanations for the endurance of that role are reasonable and thought-provoking. Illustrations. —Martha Spaulding