Tod Browning directed this controversial film that was banned in Britain for 30 years about carnival performers played mostly by people with various birth defects.
A long preface in writing explains the history of social attitudes toward such people. The dwarf Hans (Harry Earles) is attracted to the beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), and his midget fiancée Frieda (Daisy Earles) is jealous. Venus (Leila Hyams) walks out on the strong man Hercules and complains about men to the clown Phroso (Wallace Ford). Cleopatra gives Hercules eggs for breakfast and a good time. One of the Siamese twins is planning to get married; Roscoe (Roscoe Ates) complains because one has to leave with the other. Phroso tells Venus about a dream he had of her. The bearded lady gives birth to a baby boy. A black man with no arms or legs lights his own cigarette using only his mouth.
Hans gives Cleopatra champagne. Phroso refuses to go out with Venus but then kisses her. Frieda forgives Hans, but she warns him that other people are laughing at him and Cleopatra. Frieda tells Cleopatra that Hans has a fortune. Cleopatra decides to marry Hans, expecting he will get sick. At the wedding feast she puts poison in his wine. Both Hans and Frieda are happy and say they are lucky. Then Hercules kisses Cleopatra in front of Hans, and Frieda cries and walks away. Everyone chants, "One of us; we accept her;" but Cleopatra says no and calls them freaks. Hans tells Cleopatra and Hercules that he does not blame them; then he passes out. The doctor says he has been poisoned. Venus commands Hercules to have Cleopatra tell the doctor what she put in the wine. Hans has been in bed for a week; he asks Cleopatra's forgiveness and manages not to swallow the "medicine" she is giving him. He tells the humpbacked dwarf, "Tonight."
As the carnival wagons are traveling in the rain, Hans with his friends present asks Cleopatra for the little black bottle. Phroso saves Venus from an attack by Hercules and fights him, as several people crawl after him in the rain and mud. In the final revenge Cleopatra is shown deformed and clucking like a chicken. It is announced this was caused either by a jealous lover, the code of the freaks, or the storm. In the final scene Hans in his wealthy home has seen no one in years; but Phroso and Venus bring in Frieda, who consoles him and tells him she loves him.
Seeing this film is a way for people to get over their prejudices about exceptional people by showing them as otherwise normal human beings with similar cares and desires. The attempt to exploit the wealth of a midget is thwarted by the solidarity of the social outcasts.