Mikita Brottman’s first case study in her excellent discussion of what she calls Offensive Films is Tod Browning’s classic/cult-classic Freaks. Browning’s horror/exploitation/melodrama doesn’t begin the book only because it was the first released (1932), but because it also sets the template for the remainder of the book and its central thesis: “offensive films” are vital films that “open the body” to inspection, arousing viewers’ bodily viscera (and not just their eyes) by a graphic display of the body’s detritus, its “waste,” “effusions,” and “debris” (11). Fans of Freaks know that the film freely exhibits (and exploits?) its cast members physical abnormalities, differences, and defects, both summarizing cultural forms that preceded film (the freak show, carnivals, dime museums) and updating them for a new medium and century, making it a great launching pad for Brottman’s analysis of latter films (like Blood Feast, Snuff, and Cannibal Holocaust).
According to Brottman, offensive films represent an “authentic counter-culture” (178) that exposes the “inside-out of civilization, culture, and the body”; they’re the unconscious nightmare of mainstream cinema (13). Brottman insightfully notes how the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s embraced Freaks (via the midnight movie circuit), an audience “for whom the term ‘freak’ suggested a radically democratic embracing of self-designated individuality and diversity” (21) — and Zappa fans who loved the album Freak Out! (1966) or heads who dug the underground comix of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (circa late ’60s/early ’70s) know exactly what she’s talking about.
Brottman could have connected more dots to a later counter-culture, though, if she wanted to: Punk. Specifically, The Ramones provide the link between Freaks and the freaks that scared principals and moms in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Brottman quotes a key scene in Freaks during which the beautiful (and treacherous) Cleopatra is mock-marrying the little person she’s intent on swindling and cuckholding, Hans. The freaks, “welcoming” her to their family, “work themselves into a frenzy” and begin a “lurid chant”: “‘We accept you, one of us … gooble gobble, gooble gobble, one of us, one of us'” (17). Ramones adherents recognize (and have memorized, and have luridly chanted themselves) these words as the signature element of the song “Pinhead,” a number which both expresses anxiety and anger about being “different” (“I don’t wanna be a pinhead no more”) and a resignation to the fate of being one of the family of misfits (“one of us!”). We don’t wanna be pinheads; we know we’re pinheads. And as those who pogoed during Ramones’s sets (and who turned “GABBA GABBA HEY!” into their battle cry/interpellation greeting) know well: it’s really better to be a pinhead than to be a normal anyway.
I’ll be writing about the pathology/pathologizing of cult films and cult audiences as I move closer to my dissertation (to like a movie like Freaks, you have to be kind of a freak yourself, I’m thinking), but for the meantime it’s good to know that I can count on Offensive Films as a key resource. As Freaks notes in its opening textual warning: “we present the most startling horror story of the ABNORMAL and the UNWANTED” (16). Man, I wish I’d had a t-shirt printed with ABNORMAL and UNWANTED t-shirt in 1977!
(Video cobbled together from Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)