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Never Lived: Disability and Horror in 1930s Cinema

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Historically, disability has been viewed as a binary rather than a continuum. Disability was not thought of as something one could hide – it was always visible; even mental disabilities that wouldn’t present on the surface were identifiable. It was not believed that someone could “pass” as able-bodied, because the accepted idea at the time was that you were either disabled or not. Over time, non-normative bodies became associated with evil, and we can see this through phrenology and eugenics. Much of Gothic literature reflected this idea, that bodies that didn’t conform to the standards of the time and couldn’t hide this were less human. We can examine this through Frankenstein.

When talking about non-normative bodies, it is impossible to ignore the Creature, literally an extraordinary body, stitched together from different parts. As previously stated, disability has long been linked to the monstrous, and Frankenstein fulfills this. The Creature embodies society’s fear of the unknown. This means fear of the outsider, foreigners, different races, and includes the anxiety of bodies outside the accepted norm. This extends to the fear of the disabled child. Victor rejects the Creature because he can’t even tolerate the sight of it, which reflects the paranoia of having a child that was born with a disfigurement or disability. The Creature is the antithesis to being human; he is composed of human parts, but humans are judged against him; he is everything the proper body is not. He establishes the norm because he is so far from it.

Over time, Frankenstein was adapted into plays that added a visual medium for the Creature, culminating in the 1931 James Whale film. This translation of the Creature from page to screen offers a unique opportunity to examine the cultural attitude towards the monstrous and disability. The 1931 film highlights the “nonhuman” aspects of the Creature, making him more identifiable as disabled. The most obvious difference between the novel and film is that the film removes the Creature’s ability to communicate, which others him even further. This is a stark contrast to Shelley’s articulate Creature, who not only speaks with grace, but teaches himself language and literacy. Frankenstein stresses the significance of the fact that rejection is what transforms the Creature to the Monster, emphasizing that the Creature remains kind until the point where he is excluded from society for something he cannot change about himself, his body. Most notably, the Creature is able to tell the audience his own story; his speech enables the reader to understand his perspective. While Shelley undeniably conformed to society’s attitude towards disability, she also attempted to challenge the audience’s expectations by making the creature intelligent and sympathetic. The Whale film, on the other hand, makes no such effort, and mutes the Creature, making him uncanny because he is unable to express himself naturally. Taking all these details into account, and the cultural attitude towards disability at the time, it is undeniable that the James Whale Creature is a portrayal of a person with mental disability or mental illness.

The 1931 Creature is complicated by the fact that the film goes into the science behind his creation, something Shelley conspicuously avoided. In this case, Frankenstein revives the Creature by repairing the central nervous system, emphasizing the importance of the brain, but due to an almost farcical mistake, an abnormal brain is inserted in the Creature. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, we witnessed the normalization of confining disabled people, isolating them from the public, abusive treatments, and the rise of eugenics, and all this influenced James Whale’s Creature. It was not enough to make the Creature physically deformed to frighten audiences anymore; his portrayal as mentally disabled is what makes him “monstrous” now. 

In this way, we see disability is conflated with wickedness, reflecting not only the Victorian values of Shelley’s Frankenstein but also the popularity of eugenicist science in the 1930s. The addition of the “criminal brain” negates the nature versus nurture motif of Frankenstein; Shelley’s Creature is an answer to Rousseau’s natural man, unspoiled by any preconceived bias, a true tabula rasa. Introducing the deterministic brain completely removes this. Not only that, but it also reinforces the elements of eugenics, as we see through the character of Dr. Waldman. Henry (Colin Clive), the film’s Victor Frankenstein analog, is quickly proven wrong after only a few minutes when the Creature murders the assistant, Fritz; in this way, Henry, who showed sympathy to the Creature, is shown in an unreliable light, and Waldman emerges as the voice of reason, strengthening the film’s subtextual argument for eugenics.

Shelley’s depiction of the Creature in the novel is somewhat ambiguous, with the firmest details being his tightly stretched skin, dark hair, watery eyes, and enormous frame. This makes the fact that the Creature is consistently portrayed as deformed and twisted more problematic; it reinforces the Victorian idea that he cannot pass for human, which removes any room for a conversation about the subjectivity of disability. While Shelley attempts to subvert expectations by making the Creature sympathetic, the 1931 film removes any humanity from him, as well as further defines him as othered against characters that represent the norm. The film emphasizes his nonhuman aspects, which are connected to disability. Because of this, the monstrous and disability become even more intertwined.

Todd Browning’s film Freaks premiered the year after Frankenstein, but it is completely different in tone from the Whale film. I believe that even by today’s standards it is wildly ahead of its time; there’s not another movie I can name where almost the entire cast is made up of disabled actors. For many of these actors, this was their only chance to be on screen, and they made sure it was worth it. Not only that, but Freaks also portrays disability in a positive light, it shows disabled people in relationships, a directly anti-eugenics message. Disabled bodies are seen engaging in everyday activities and experiencing domesticity. The film subverts the voyeurism of the able-bodied gaze by demystifying disability. It is critical of the treatment of disabled people, commenting on the horror of being exploited or mocked, at the time of the height of institutionalization and the rise of the Nazi regime.

The most revolutionary scene in the film is when we see the Bearded Lady has given birth. I cannot think of another movie where we see disabled people reproducing, which naturally is the implication of sex, so by the same token I can’t think of another movie where we see disabled people experiencing pleasure. Of course, in reality Bearded Ladies were hoaxes, but the message is the same regardless, not to mention that her husband is a disabled man. So, the movie does not just say that disabled people can only reproduce with able bodied people, but two disabled people are worthy of desire.

The movie is definitely far from perfect; disabled bodies are used to shock the audience, but I think there is still a strong case to be made that despite that, the disabled characters are the heroes of the film. It is less of a horror film than a revenge film. Hans and the other performers are justified their vengeance against Cleopatra and Hercules. And in the end, they win. Hans inherits his fortune, he gets the girl, and presumably the other performers also escape consequences and get to be free. The film shows that the real monsters are the able-bodied characters; their judgment has twisted them, so when Cleopatra is transformed at the end of the film, it is simply her outside matching her inside.

Freaks shocked audiences when it debuted, to the point that it ruined Browning’s career. It blows my mind to think that the man who created one of the most iconic movies of all time, Dracula, could be destroyed after one film. Viewers famously fled the theater, they were so horrified. I think that audiences weren’t ready for a movie where disabled people were seen as equal, where they were treated with humanity. I think it’s important to acknowledge that Browning worked in circuses and sideshows before transitioning to film, and I think because of that, it’s not a coincidence that the freakshow performers are the heroes of the story. He had looked into the eyes of those actors, he knew them, and he saw their dignity.

Through Frankenstein and Freaks, we can see two dichotomous representations of disability in cinema. Frankenstein shows the traditional values of Gothic fiction, that disabled individuals are less than human. Even though they can be sympathized with, they are still victimized or treated as evil. Frankenstein is symptomatic of a society that is prejudiced towards disabled people, and through it we can witness how society shapes the treatment of disability, even in their adaptations. Frankenstein’s 1931 film reflects the acceptance of eugenicist logic, and thus demonstrated the shift in perception of disabled bodies. On the other hand, Freaks offers us a vision of a better world, where the marginalized can get justice and be treated as equal. I think it’s really interesting that despite being made nearly one hundred years ago, there hasn’t been a movie that comes close to it, even as we have become more “progressive.”

Frankenstein screens Wednesday, October 11th.


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