A year ago…maybe longer…I wrote a post about a genetic condition commonly known as “Pinhead Syndrome”. And since the premier of American Horror Story: Asylum its been receiving renewed interest.
Actress, Naomi Grossman endures hours of special make up and prosthetic application to transform into Pepper, a patient incarerated in the ediface which serves as this season’s main character: an asylum called Briarcliff. Pepper is microcephalic.
In the simplest of terms, the character has a considerably smaller head than normal, due to a smaller than normal braincase. She seems gentle and playful but as we learned in the first episode this season, she has a very violent past. She drowned her nephew and cut off his ears.
Having microcephaly doesn’t automatically make one homicidal, but the patient will be mentally/emotionally disabled.
Pepper was no doubt based on one of the world’s most famous ‘pinheads”, Schlitzie Surtees, who co-starred in Tod Browning’s original American horror story, the 1932 film “Freaks”.
A BIT ABOUT THE FILM
The cast was almost completely composed of actual carnival performers. Browning took the exceptional step of casting real people with deformities and what have you, as the eponymous sideshow “freaks,” rather than using costumes and makeup. This gave the movie an incredible, almost tactile realness. It’s an amazing movie, really.
Here’s a sampling:
Interesting isn’t it that with their monotonous chant, the “freaks” decided to accept the “normal” looking woman? You might ask, is this some parallel universe? No, it’s simply their everyday world where “normal” is different and being different is quite the norm.
And it was a world Browning knew very well. He’d been a member of a traveling circus in his early years, and much of the film was drawn from his personal experiences. In the film, the physically deformed “freaks” are inherently trusting and honorable people, while the real monsters are the “normal” members of the circus C0-stars in this celluloid epic include Olga Roderick as the bearded lady. Frances O’Connor and Martha Morris are the Armless Wonders. Daisy and Violet Hilton (no relation to Paris or Nikki—I don’t think) star as the conjoined twins they were in life,
Schlitze’s true identity is a bit vague, but most believe that this female looking, dress wearing entity was born a very male Simon Metz on September 10, 1901 in the Bronx. His birth parents remain mysterious figures to this day and young Simon was likely ‘sold’ to the owner of some circus sideshow because of a rather obvious birth defect.
Schlitzie was born microcephalic, a condition characterised by an abnormally small and often pointed cranium. This is often called “pinhead syndrome” and almost always resulted in retardation. Schlitze himself had the cognitive abilities of a four-year old.
Nowadays, a movie like this wouldn’t stand a chance of even getting green lit, much less havingh its script read by any reputable studio brass. And if it ever got to distribution in theaters..even the art house ones, it would probebly get shut down by angry, torch-bearing protestors and run out-of-town on a rail, but back in the late 1800’s through the early 1950’s, the display and exhibiting of ‘pinheads’ and other human anomolies was nothing new and in fact, considered entertainment. In the 1800’s pinheads were often exhibited as a species apart from man, as the last members of an ancient race – usually Aztecs – and on occasion they were billed as being from another planet.
During his lifetime, Schlitze was exhibited as all of these things. For much of his career, he rarely spoke and was almost always billed as female. This was mostly due to his dress-like attire which was actually an attire choice based purely on the fact that he was completely incontinent. A dress allowed him more rapid access to do what …well, what needs to transpire when one is incontinent.
While popular with crowds, Schlitze’s biggest fans were his colleagues and caretakers. To sum up the reason for this fondness is difficult, but the wonderment Schlitze held for the daily mundane, his childlike exuberance, his eternal innocence greatly influenced those around him. Schlitze was often called ‘a ray of sunshine’, and his smile and unconditional love shined on all those around him.
During his long career Schlitze entertained millions of carnival and film goers with his antics. He was perhaps best known for his role in Freaks, – though he also appeared in Island Of Lost Souls opposite Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. As a sideshow entertainer, Schlitze was employed by every major name in the business. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Clyde Beatty Circus, Tom Mix Circus, West Coast Shows, Vanteen & Lee Circus Sideshow, and the Dobritsch International Circus all had Schlitze in their shows at one point or another.
Although Schlitze had no known biological family, during the 1936 season of the Tom Mix Circus sideshow George Surtees, a chimpanzee trainer, became his legal guardian. Surtees was, by all accounts, a caring and loving guardian but when he passed in the early 1960’s his daughter had Schlitze committed to a Los Angeles County Hospital.
Schlitze remained committed for some time, until he was recognized by sword swallower, Bill Unks. Unks just happened to be working at the hospital during the off-season when he noticed a very sad and depressed Schlitze. Apparently, Schlitze missed the carnival, his friends and the adoration of the crowds. Hospital authorities eventually determined that the best care for Schlitze would be to make him a ward of Unks’ employer, showman Sam Kortes, and return to the sideshow, which he did for a time.
Film students know Schlitze and the strange cast of Freaks. The movie is required viewing in many film schools in this country. In 1994, Freaks was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
And Schlitzie contributed to that as well.
As he entered the autumn of his life, he lived in a small apartment near MacArthur Park Lake in downtown Los Angeles. Schlitze could be seen feeding the pigeons and ducks with his guardian, performing for people as they passed by.
I would suggest seeing Freaks, if you can. It’s an interesting, albeit a rather embarrassing part of our cinematic history, but vital to understand how and why these people were so misunderstood and how and why our ignorance and fear prompted our mistreatment of them.
The good news is that we’ve made tremendous headway since this movie was made 78 years ago. We’ve learned tolerance and we now understand the physical ramifications of genetic mutations. There are government programs and research facilities that have been created to combat these rare birth anomalies. For those afflicted with them, there are now special homes and assisted living centers where these people can learn and thrive
Asylum’s such Briarcliff depicted in AHS, enter the picture only when a criminal element does as well. And for those with microcephaly, that IS the exception; not the rule.
This very real world is progress indeed and a far cry from the movie, Freaks, circus sideshows in general and Schlitze’s 1940’s bio which basically exploited his “wide array of “talents” that included singing, dancing……and counting to ten.