“The majority of freaks are endowed with normal thoughts and emotions,” explains the pseudo-ethnographic preamble to this “highly unusual attraction,” immediately setting us up for a combination of empathy and exploitation. The story of a “normal” trapeze artist seducing a midget for his money could be seen as a variant of the familiar pre-Code “gold diggers” plot transplanted to the world of the sideshow, portrayed as a twilight society with strange codes of its own. Despite being one of the few films that, mutatis mutandis, treats the Other as (in the words of the freaks' famous chant) “one of us,” the film traps its characters in a horror mode. More disruptive yet is Browning's style, which interrupts the crude melodrama for dreamlike sequences whose lyricism voyeuristically peers into, as it celebrates, the lives of these carnival performers.

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