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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Horror History Vol. 1 - Tod Browning's Carnival Tricks

As many of you know, I’m a huge fan of horror movies.  It’s easily my favorite genre and while I’m a little picky about my horror (I prefer monsters over slashers) I’m pretty much open to watching anything.   Last year around Halloween I published a listicle about my favorite movie The Creature From The Black Lagoon.  In that post, I described how the story actually came from a very real Amazonian myth and it gave me the idea for this series.  Over the next ten weeks or so, we’re going to visit some of the true events that launched great horror movies.

If you are a horror movie fan, chances are you are at least familiar with the name Tod Browning.  He's responsible for some of the most famous movies in the history of the genre and also one of the most infamous ones.  What you may not know is that prior to entering the wild west atmosphere of the early film business, he actually made his name in real carnivals and traveling sideshows.  In fact, he was one of the star attractions and it was this experience which led him to his film career.

Browning was born in Louisville, KY and his uncle was the professional baseball player that the original Louisville Slugger was made for.  Browning wasn't interested in sports though.  His calling was always showmanship.  As a kid, he'd been singled out by the church for his amazing voice.  He would perform on Sundays but if people wanted to see him outside of that, they would have to pay (a penny a performance) to see him in a shed in his back yard.  

Browning would write, direct and perform in productions that ranged from dramas to musicals and he staged them all in that shed.  There was no doubt that showbiz was the thing that called to him, so it should have come as little surprise to those close to him when he literally ran away at sixteen to join a traveling show.  What probably did surprise them was that he didn't pursue singing.  Instead, Browning was drawn to the dark side (and easy money) of the carnival sideshow.  

His first gig was as a "barker" for a "Wild Man of Borneo" act.  The wild man was really an African-American from Mississippi in costume.  Browning loved that underworld element through and through.  He rubbed elbows with the attractions that most people would have shied away from.  I'm talking about acts like the "geek" who bit the heads off live chickens, the dwarves, the pinheads and others.  He soon learned how to escape from manacles and became an attraction in his own right.  He spent a season as a clown for Ringling Bros. and another as a rider in a horse show.  However, his most lucrative and odd "trick", the one that ended his carnival run, was as a "Living Corpse".  

The way the trick worked was that on the very first day the carnival pulled into town, they would announce one of their most miraculous offerings: an elixir that actually raised the dead.  Of course, that claim needed some proof in order to sell product.  At this point, they would unveil Browning, laying in an actual coffin, his features pale and deathly.

The barker would then instruct his assistants to bury this dead man.  The coffin would actually be placed eight feet down in the ground and all of the dirt placed back on it.  The barker would then tell everyone to come back the next day.  Sometimes, it would be two days!  At the appointed time, everyone would gather round to watch as Browning was exhumed and miraculously brought back to life with the special potion.

How did he do it?  Well, it wasn't easy.  Browning actually had to stay down in the coffin the entire time.  There was a ventilation system built into it to allow for fresh air.  There was also a small hidden panel in the coffin where he could hide malted milk balls so he didn't starve.  Otherwise, there was nothing for him to do but lay there and wait.  He famously said that the only time he was ever scared was the first time when he heard the dirt raining down on the lid.

He performed this trick for two years in a ton of towns as part of a traveling riverboat show until finally a police raid in Madison, Indiana exposed their con.  Browning decided, after losing every cent he had to the imposed fine, it was time to do something slightly more "upscale" and so he went back to singing and dancing as part of vaudeville acts.

How does all this tie into the film industry?  Well, film started out in the sideshow.  It was an attraction, the same as the Wild Man or the Living Corpse.  In 1913, at the age of thirty-one, Browning was offered a part in a film by an associate of his.  Two years later, he directed his first film and the rest, as they say, is history.

Browning is credited with directing 62 films in his lifetime.  His most famous is Dracula (1931), starring Bela Lugosi, however prior to that, he'd already made huge hits with Lon Chaney. 

If you've never seen the silent film, West of Zanzibar (1928), you really should.  It's one of the darkest films of revenge and horror in Chaney's catalog.  Browning also directed Chaney in the famous "lost" film London After Midnight (1927)

After Dracula was such a huge hit, the studio let him direct the film he'd always wanted to make.  It was a film about the sideshow life that he'd fallen so in love with as a young man.  In particular, it was a film about the people he felt most akin to from those days.  The movie is Freaks (1932) and it would prove to be his undoing in Hollywood.  

While Browning treats his titular characters with respect (they are in fact the good guys in the film), the studio's marketing did not.  Instead, they played up the more salacious tidbits as evidenced in the poster image directly above.  

"Do Siamese Twins Make Love?"

"Can a Full Grown Woman Truly Love a Midget?"

"What Sex is the Half Man Half Woman?"

You can see how popular society thought the film was exploiting those "unfortunates" who were the stars.  The film was famously pulled from theaters, disowned by the studio and Browning's reputation was ruined.  He would go on to make a handful of other films, including a reteaming with Bela Lugosi in Mark of the Vampire (1935).  He wouldn't direct another film after Miracles for Sale in 1939.

Browning died in 1962 but not before something amazing had started to happen.  In 1961, Freaks was unearthed and began showing in art house theaters.  Over the next decade, it gained popularity as a midnight film that college kids would flock to on Friday and Saturday nights.  Among a certain breed of horror fan, it's now considered a masterpiece.

I'm definitely part of that breed.  Personally, it's one of my favorite films of all time and part of the reason is because you can see so much of Tod Browning in it.  If you haven't seen it, seek it out and also I highly recommend West of Zanzibar, Dracula and even Mark of the Vampire.  

If you're a connoisseur of horror, I doubt you'll be disappointed.

And if you like those, you should check out my book The Wash.  It's filled with all kinds of fun.

See you next time!

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