Freakery, Cult Films, and the Problem of Ambivalence

Article excerpt

CULT FILMS ACQUIRE A SELECT BUT DEVOTED group of fans who engage in repeated screenings, ritual behaviors, and specific reading strategies. These fans, or "cultists," gain subcultural capital by championing their object choices as more unique and supposedly less accessible than mass-marketed cinema. This sense of "uniqueness" is reflected by the films' perceived difference from "mainstream," non-cult movies. Yet, seldom discussed by cult film scholars is the significance of disability in the conceptualization of cult cinema, which I discuss in this article through two intertwined premises. The first premise explores how representations of disability as "freakish" spectacle, inspired by a long and problematic history of unequal viewing relations, are a common feature in many films taken up as cult objects. In this respect, I focus on cult films that feature performers with visible physical disabilities. These films, such as Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), exemplify the freak show atmosphere that developed around the midnight movie and its cultish kin. My second premise argues that in order to support a subcultural attitude of difference, cult film reception often uses signifiers culturally associated with the stigmatization of disabled bodies. This specifically includes the portioning off of cult films as freakish anomalies, a distinction echoing socially prevalent attitudes that separate "abnormal" bodies from "normal" ones. Ableist perceptions of disability as abnormal and deviant thereby form a context for asserting the alleged abnormalcy and deviance of cult films themselves.

Cultists may use disability as a metaphor for their perceived sense of rebellion, but this temporary identification does little to challenge the social inequalities still faced by those traditionally linked to freakery: people with disabilities. Although cultists viewing freakery can ritualistically find pleasure in a bodily ambivalence that may potentially serve "transgressive" purposes in other contexts, said ambivalence facilitates a conservative response to freakery when set within the context of cult reception. The "oppositional" sense of aesthetic/subcultural difference through which cultists champion their object choices as mainstream cinema's "other" encourages the reception of abnormality as a socially deviant otherness. Although this binary logic seemingly allows few avenues for escape, a greater cultural awareness of the fluidity and variation within broad categories such as "disability" and "cult" may provide a productive alternate view.

Freakery and Ambivalence

In normative society, freakery is premised on unequal viewing and social relations. A nondisabled audience retains the power to subject a non-normative body (traditionally, that of a person with disabilities) to the ableist gaze as entertaining spectacle, enjoying a mixture of shock, horror, wonder, and pity. Although it has taken many different cultural forms throughout history, freakery's viewing dynamic is still very much with us in contemporary society, allowing non-normative bodies to remain largely inseparable from the specter of freakery in the popular consciousness. People with disabilities are frequently silenced, placed on display, curiously examined, and subjected to hostile, embarrassed, or pitying reactions from non-disabled people. David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder note that the unequal viewing relations associated with the freak show can thus be considered, in many ways, an exaggerated form of the more subtle, everyday stigmatization endured by people with disabilities ("Exploitations"). The connotation of spectacular objectiflcation surrounding the term "freak" emphasizes the body's precedence over all other aspects of the enfreaked individual's identity. This possibly explains why few people with disabilities have attempted to reclaim the term as a label of pride in the same way that the terms "crip" and "cripple" (which arguably connote spectacle to a lesser degree) have been reappropriated for political empowerment. …