Freakery, Cult Films, and the Problem of Ambivalence

By Church, David | Journal of Film and Video, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Freakery, Cult Films, and the Problem of Ambivalence


Church, David, Journal of Film and Video


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Freakery, Cult Films, and the Problem of Ambivalence
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.