Finding Disability Pride in “American Horror Story: Freak Show”
By Keith Murfee-DeConcini
DSAB 622: Disability in Mass Media, Fall 2017
“What is a freak?” and “Where’s the freaks?” are two questions season four of the anthologized television series American Horror Show (AHS) sets out to answer in a broad sense. Each season of AHS is a self-contained story, and season four, which had its premiere on October 8, 2014, and its finale on January 21, 2015, centers around one of the last remaining freak shows in 1950s America. This show is important because it is part of an extremely popular mainstream series, and in this season, the show explores a dark part of disability history while using some actors with disabilities to help tell the story.
Throughout this paper, I will examine the season as a whole, paying close attention to the last three episodes, to analyze the treatment of the freak show in this series, including how its representation illuminates the historical freak show of the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. To do this, I will use the poststructuralist approach of textual analysis put forth by Alan McKee in his 2003 book Textual Analysis: A Beginner’s Guide, which adopts the idea that various cultures and subcultures make sense of the world differently and that there is not a right or wrong way to interpret a text (McKee, 2003).
After reviewing some history and historical examples of freaks, while also addressing some criticism of the show, I will analyze the season as a whole, with a particular focus on the last three episodes, and then share my conclusions. It should be noted that this paper is by no means a comprehensive look at the history of the American freak show or season four of American Horror Story.
Exploring some of the complex themes presented in American Horror Story: Freak Show (AHS:FS) requires understanding the historical significance of the freak show itself. Without knowledge of the allure of the historical freak show, aptly labeled “the pornography of disability” (Bogdan, 1988), we cannot comprehend how that appeal carried to amusement parks, fairgrounds, and the circus. Furthermore, the appeal of the freak show led to horror films like the 1932 cult film Freaks, which was a profound inspiration on the freak show in AHS:FS.
Although the freak show did not rise to prominence in America (that honor belonged to 16th-century England) (Grande, 2010), the freak show came to the United States in the 19th century and took root in American culture until the mid-20th century. While it may sound shocking to us today, in 19th-century America, gawking at people who were born with deformities was not only socially acceptable—it was considered family entertainment (Crockett, 2014). There was perhaps no one greater at exploiting people who were deemed different than P. T. Barnum. While the totality of Barnum’s influence on American culture, past and present, is a subject best left to another paper, the rise of the freak show in America started with him. In 1841, Barnum purchased The American Museum in New York City and hired some freak performers to work in the museum; thus, the American freak show was born.
Throughout the years that followed, the freak show would take on many different forms: from what were known as “dime museums” (which focused on the educational value of freaks and people with disabilities and which a family could enter by paying a dime per person) to the traveling shows that put the dime museum on wheels; from being found in amusement parks and fairgrounds to the circus. For a century, the “family entertainment” of the freak show gripped the American public.
Most of the drama in AHS:FS centers around the characters of Bette and Dot Tattler, conjoined twin sisters (both played by actor Sarah Paulson) who get recruited by Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) to join one of the last remaining traveling freak shows. This freak show is headquartered in Jupiter, Florida, the main setting for the season. Most of the season takes place in 1952, which makes sense, given that the heyday of the historical freak show started in the 1840s and waned in the 1940s (Bogdan, 1988). The heyday of the freak show is the topic of Robert Bogdan’s 1988 book Freak Show, the primary historical background for this paper.
This paper will consider the lives of Chang and Eng Bunker, the conjoined twins who inspired the term Siamese twins, for historical reference, in light of the depiction of conjoined twins in AHS:FS. The term Siamese twins is no longer considered medically appropriate, because conjoined twins can be born anywhere in the world and thus are not limited to a certain race or ethnicity. The Bunker twins, who were born in 1811, were from Siam (now known as Thailand), hence the term (American Social History Productions / Center for Media and Learning, 1996). While they were not the first conjoined twins born, they were the most famous, and they lived during the time period that represents the prominence of the American freak show.
Chang and Eng came to America in the late 1820s to travel the country as an exhibit, under the contract of a Boston sea captain named Abel Coffin. That contract lasted three years, and then the brothers set out on their own, touring not only America but also the world. They knew that they were a curiosity to the vast majority of the public, and they made good money from touring. Eventually, they earned enough to buy a plantation farm (along with slaves) in a North Carolina community named Traphill.
After retiring from touring, the brothers married local sisters Adelaide and Sarah Yates. The Bunkers had a total of 21 children (Ayers, 2008; Traywick, 1979). The families lived on the plantation in two separate houses; one family connected to each brother occupied each house, while the brothers spent an even amount of time with each family (Ayers, 2008). They died in 1874 in Mount Airy, North Carolina. Today, the Bunkers’ legacy lives on through their descendants, who number more than 1,500 and live all over the country, though many continue to reside near where the brothers lived. The descendants hold annual reunions to celebrate their family heritage (Evans, 2011; Newman, 2006).
The family is very protective of the twins’ legacy, with one family member commenting: “They [the brothers] were not freaks . . . They were human beings who had a tremendous physical adversity to overcome. They left their home in Siam, their mother and family, and immediately picked up the language, mores, and manners of their adopted country. They were gutsy, smart, and self-confident” (Newman, 2006).
Cynthia Wu, who was able to attend the 2011 family reunion that marked the 200th anniversary of the twins and would later publish a book on them, wrote in her 2008 essay “The Siamese Twins in Late-Nineteenth-Century Narratives of Conflict and Reconciliation”: “The use of the extraordinary or disabled body as metaphor has a troubled history. Disabled figures in literature are often objects of pity, scorn, fear, or disgust that function as narrative devices instead of complex, multidimensional characters” (Wu, 2008). Wu is taking issue with how the twins were written about by authors like Mark Twain and Thomas Nast, among others. However, as I will discuss later in this paper, upon analysis of the whole season of AHS:FS and especially the last few episodes, these cultural attitudes of pity, scorn, fear, or disgust are very much critiqued in the show, while also providing an accurate representation of those attitudes present in Jupiter, Florida, in 1952.
As mentioned, Chang and Eng were not the first conjoined twins born, nor were they the last. There have been many since the Bunker twins, including, notably, Daisy and Violet Hilton (1908-1969), who were from the United Kingdom and, like the Bunker twins, traveled both Europe and America as exhibits in freak shows (Russell, 2014). Their relevance to this paper is that they were featured in Freaks (1932), which inspired the show this paper is about. Abigail Loraine “Abby” and Brittany Lee Hensel (born in 1990) are the only conjoined twins alive currently (Wallis, 1996), and Sarah Paulson cites their YouTube videos as a major aid to her portrayal of Bette and Dot Tattler on the show (Paley Center for Media, 2016).
Before the season premiere, there were a range of expectations for the season’s story arc, from excitement, to dread, to cautious open-mindedness. The title of a blog post (posted the night before the premiere) on the website Disability Thinking summed it up best: “AHS: Freak Show… It Could Go Either Way.” The author, who goes by the pen name apulrang, stated that the show, by hiring a few disabled actors, “put AHS: Freak Show on the ‘right’ side of a debate going on almost entirely within the disability community… how much it matters whether or not disabled characters are played by disabled actors” (Apulrang, 2014). The author goes on to question whether viewing the freak shows of history through today’s social and cultural lens could cause confusion. While the series shows freaks being empowered, viewers could misinterpret that fictional empowerment over the historical exploitation. The author concludes: “My concern is that American Horror Story’s brand is sensationalism, and only occasionally includes actual ideas… it could be terrible. It could be wonderful” (Apulrang, 2014).
A month after the premiere, Emily Fletcher wrote a blog post titled “Disability in Popular Culture: American Horror Story Freak Show,” after discussing disability in one of her classes. She wrote: “Disability is categorized and defined in different ways; the most visible way being the social model of disability, using society’s image to define what is and what is not a disability. In addition, society’s views on disability have determined the treatment of disabled people throughout history” (Fletcher, 2014). She concludes her post by asking “Are shows, like American Horror Story, doing more harm or help by directly illustrating the wrongs of certain time periods?” (Fletcher, 2014).
This is an interesting question to ponder as we start exploring the season in the next section. Most people (especially in large groups) have a hard time admitting when they are wrong. Exposed to some of the horrors of that time period (the 1950s mainly), are viewers going to accept that some of these terrible things actually did or could have happened, or are they going to dismiss it as nothing more than sensationalism, as apulrang points out?
Will the audience understand the underlying message that what series creator Ryan Murphy calls the “overarching element of horror” (Schottmiller, 2017; Weinstein, 2014) is discrimination against people with disabilities, or will the audience view the season as a heavy dose of artistic license? As Murphy says in an interview: “What happened to this group of people [the ‘freaks’] is an American horror story.” He hopes that the show’s audience will “take away a respect for what this group of people went through, which [Murphy] found to be very moving” (Schottmiller, 2017; Weinstein, 2014).
We turn our attention now to criticism of the show after the season concluded. Because this analysis focuses on critiquing a television show, most of the criticism in this section will come from entertainment news sites, like BuzzFeed or The Guardian. While the latter is a UK publication, its criticism of AHS:FS says what the majority of American publications also think: “‘Freak’ is a slur and ‘Freak Show’ is propagating it. Disabled people deserve better” (Sherman, 2014). Even so, the show is an accurate representation of cultural norms of the 1950s, including the terminology of freak.
Criticism of this season is very easy to find online; someone has only to type into Google the show’s name (American Horror Story: Freak Show) followed by either the word disability or ableism, and the results are plentiful. The opinions are various in nature, as the critics (some of whom have disabilities and some of whom do not) analyze the show and passionately debate its merits and its flaws.
For example, one of the main points of Carl Schottmiller’s essay “Wir sind alle freaks” (We’re All Freaks) is that the show was created and written by people who are not disabled, and their version of “freak discourse” (the study of “freak history” and all the different complexities within that history), no matter how well intentioned, will fail because they cannot possibly truly understand that history. Further, despite casting actors with disabilities to portray characters with disabilities (alongside non-disabled actors portraying other characters with disabilities), the show risks exploiting the actors with disabilities (Schottmiller, 2017).
There are several ways to counter such criticisms. First, this show is by no means perfect. It had a set timeframe in a certain era, with a set number of episodes to tell a complete story, which was the death of one of the last remaining freak shows and thus the end of the traditional freak show. The show did not have the time to explore the prominence of the American freak show from the 1840s to the 1940s. Instead it focused on the time directly after that period, and it revealed that era with a horrific flair that fans have come to expect from the series as a whole. Second, the season did not explicitly try to exploit the actors with disabilities. Had the producers not involved actors with disabilities, the season might have been a complete failure.
Did the season address everything that it should have? No. Could the show have cast even more actors with disabilities in major roles, or let the actors with disabilities that they did cast have more screen time and larger roles throughout the season? Yes. Was every one of the actors with disabilities on the show happy with the character they were being asked to portray? No. (Walters, 2014).
At least the people who created American Horror Story used a full season to expose a part of history that not many people know about, and the show creators and writers did so with noble intentions. Could they have done more? Absolutely. However, an analysis of the season reveals that they met an important stated goal: “Rather than using freak discourse to emphasize difference between the disabled characters and the mainstream audience, Murphy hopes the show will reveal the horrors of ableist oppression and lead to a recognition of shared humanity” (Schottmiller, 2017; Weinstein, 2014).
The season premiered in 2014, when there was not a lot of media coverage and artistic opportunities for actors with disabilities to be themselves. Four years later, things are still not where they should be, but it has gotten better. Maybe Freak Show was a starting point in increased media coverage and artistic opportunities for actors with disabilities. Was it the best possible starting point? Probably not, but it was a beginning nonetheless.
Methods of Analysis
The methods to analyze some of the overarching themes of this season come directly from Alan McKee’s 2003 book, Textual Analysis: A Beginner’s Guide. While I shall use his terms (such as making sense of the world in three categories: social organization on a large scale, on the smaller individual scale, and through cultural representation), the themes addressed will be focused through a disability studies lens. The main theme pointed out in the findings will be disgust, although a brief instance of acceptance and gratitude will also be noted. Some of the models of disability will be referenced; the medical model, for instance, “is presented as viewing disability as a problem of the person,” while the social model “sees the issue of ‘disability’ as a socially created problem and a matter of the full integration of individuals into society… disability is not an attribute of an individual, but rather a complex collection of conditions, many of which are created by the social environment” (“Definitions of Models of Disability,” 2010).
Setting the Season
As mentioned, season four of AHS takes place mainly in Jupiter, Florida, in 1952. Certain scenes also take place in 1932 and the early 1960s, but the main time period of 1952 is the most important because this coincides with the historical downturn of the American freak show.
The cast features several actors with disabilities, more than previous seasons of the show did. Mat Fraser, a British actor, has phocomelia, which causes malformations of the arms and legs. He plays Paul the Illustrated Seal (American Horror Story FX, 2014, Oct 4).
Rose Siggins was born with sacral agenesis, and because of this, as she recalled, “my legs were severely deformed, with the feet pointing in opposite directions” (American Horror Story FX, 2014, Oct 2). This led her parents to have her legs amputated when she was two. She plays Legless Suzi. Siggins died in 2015. (Associated Press, 2015).
Erika Ervin is an actress and model known professionally as Amazon Eve (American Horror Story FX, 2014, Oct 6). Ervin, who is transgender, plays Amazon Eve, the giantess.
Jyoti Amge is the smallest woman in the world, due to achondroplasia, a genetic disorder that causes dwarfism (American Horror Story FX, 2014, Oct 7). She plays Ma Petite.
Recurring cast members with disabilities include Ben Woolf, who was born with pituitary dwarfism (AHS Brasil, 2014). He plays Meep. Woolf died in 2015 (Stack, 2015).
Jamie Brewer is an actress who has Down syndrome. She plays Marjorie.
The rest of the “freaks” in the show are played by actors without disabilities. They are:
Jessica Lange, who plays the show runner Elsa Mars;
Kathy Bates, who plays the bearded lady Ethel Darling;
Angela Bassett, who plays the woman with three breasts, Desiree Dupree;
Michael Chiklis, who plays the strongman Dell Toledo;
Evan Peters, who plays the lobster boy, Jimmy Darling;
Chrissy Metz, who plays the fat lady, Ima Wiggles;
Christopher Neiman, who plays the pinhead Salty;
Naomi Grossman, who plays the pinhead Pepper; and
Sarah Paulson, who plays the conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler.
The villains of the season are also played by actors without disabilities. They are:
John Carroll Lynch, who plays Twisty the Clown;
Dennis O’ Hare, who plays the con artist Stanley;
Emma Roberts, who plays Stanley’s accomplice, Maggie
Finn Wittrock, who plays the rich and spoiled psychopath Dandy Mott.
All of the villains impact the season’s story arc in their own ways, with Dandy Mott having the most terrifying impact on the freak show.
Throughout the season, we get to know some characters more than others, but we do learn something about everyone. Because most of the action of the season revolves around the conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler and their interactions with the rest of the characters, the focus of the textual analysis will rely on their portrayal in episodes discussed. Other characters shall be featured though, as the cultural attitudes displayed throughout the season affect them all.
The premiere episode, “Monsters Among Us,” sets the tone for the season, as the title itself exposes the cultural attitudes of the 1950s toward people with disabilities. Most of the first half of this episode revolves around how townsfolk react to Bette and Dot, who are conjoined twins; that term, however, is completely lost on the town, so they are just viewed as monsters, freaks of nature.
Twisty the Clown strikes terror into the town by randomly killing three people, and the twins naturally get accused of those murders, along with the brutal murder of their mother (which Bette actually did commit—after suffering horrific abuse by their mother). The final murder in this episode happens on the campgrounds when Jimmy Darling murders a cop who is trying to arrest the twins after calling them freaks (Murphy R., 2014). There is a lot of violence in the first episode, and the overall tone is explored through the rest of the season. Who is a freak, a monster among us? Is it the people born different from the standard norm, or is it the harsh people who are born “normal”?
The next episode, “Massacres and Matinees,” directly references history when the strongman Dell introduces the twins (who had been recruited by Elsa to join her “Cabinet of Curiosities” in the previous episode) in a mock show welcome as “The Spectacular Siamese Sisters” (Minear & Gomez-Rejon, 2014). This is both strange and problematic. It is strange because, as mentioned above, Chang and Eng were not the first nor the only conjoined twins to exist. The Hilton sisters from the UK were alive in the 1950s, and they toured America, so American audiences of that time would have been familiar with them.
The question becomes why not compare the Tattler sisters to the Hilton sisters instead of the Bunker twins, whose lives ended in 1874? Unless someone studies freak culture, making reference to Chang and Eng makes little sense to the average viewer. The same could be said for making reference to the Hilton sisters, but they were alive during the time period stated, plus, as shall be explored later, they starred in 1932’s Freaks, which serves as a major inspiration for the season, especially the later episodes.
It is also problematic that Dell references the Tattler sisters as Siamese, because they are not. Bette and Dot share no ethnic heritage with the famous twins to whom they are compared. Most likely, Dell was playing up the showman-esque hype; showmen were historically famous for embellishing acts’ backstories (Bogdan, 1988).
The only other historical reference to the Bunker twins happens in the next episode, “Edward Mordrake (Part 1),” when the con artist Stanley visits the Museum of Morbid Curiosities and inquiries about an object on display. The museum’s curator claims that the jar contains the liver of Chang and Eng (Wong & Uppendahl, 2014).
Throughout the entire season, the freak show is pitted against the townspeople in a battle for acceptance. They are routinely discriminated against; the police continually harass them and try to run the freak show out of town in multiple episodes. When the freaks try to order a meal at a diner, thus entering an able-bodied space, they are accused of upsetting a child in the diner with their mere presence and are asked to leave (“Massacres and Matinees”; Minear & Gomez-Rejon, 2014). The season explores the need for acceptance as much as it explores the various acts of discrimination, with Jimmy Darling constantly saying “Don’t call us freaks!” and “We are just like them!” (meaning the townspeople) throughout multiple episodes as resistance battle cries.
The only time this notion of us versus them is not present is at the end of the episode “Edward Mordrake Part 2,” when the town’s curfew has been lifted thanks to Twisty the Clown being killed, supposedly by Jimmy. The town gathers around the freak show to thank him for restoring peace to their town, and thus, for a time, the freaks have acceptance from the town (Salt & Deutch, 2014). This does not last though, as it is only episode four of a 13-episode season.
At the end of episode nine, “Tupperware Party Massacre,” Jimmy is falsely accused of murdering a group of housewives and is arrested. The housewives were actually murdered by Dandy, who had been committing murders since the death of his mentor Twisty (Falchuk, 2014).
At the beginning of the episode “Magical Thinking,” we see Jimmy imprisoned in a cell. Stanley, under an alias, comes to visit him and convinces him to sell one of his hands to pay for a lawyer. After Jimmy agrees to this and awakens chained to a hospital bed, he finds both of his hands gone. In the last of a few father-to-son moments Jimmy has with his father, Dell the strongman, throughout the latter half of the season, Dell comes to visit his son in the hospital, and we learn that Dell was the black sheep of his family, not having been born with ectrodactyly (“lobster hands”) like his father and two brothers. Jimmy remarks to his father “Imagine that, being a freak for being normal” (Salt & Goi, 2015). This is one of the few poignant lines of dialogue meant to remain with the viewer long after the episode has ended.
The majority of the episode focuses on the twins exploring their sexuality, after they’ve fully put aside their differences in personality and begun to feel that the freak show is truly their home. This newfound acceptance (which has slowly been building throughout the episodes), not only from their fellow freaks but also in accepting themselves as a part of each other, still leaves them with an undeniable itch. This sexual itch finds resolution with Chester, the seemingly normal traveling salesman/magician who has a passion for bona-fide freak shows. Chester (played by Neil Patrick Harris) has a dark past, though, which is explained over the course of the episode and the next one. On all accounts, when the freaks first encounter Chester, he seems normal and unafraid of them, in contrast to the attitudes of the townspeople (Salt & Goi, 2015).
Even “normal” people who interact with the freak show during the season bring a darkness with them, as seen in Chester, Stanley, Maggie, and Dandy. Dandy’s obsession with the twins (combined with his anger at being rejected from joining the freak show) will fuel his later actions, which will lead all the characters to the grand finale in a few episodes. For all that can be said about Dandy Mott (and he could be a fascinating subject for another paper—especially in contrast to his mentor Twisty), he seems to, in a very weird and sick way, care about the twins. After an investigator hands Dandy pictures of the twins having sex with Chester, in response to Dandy’s question about whether the investigator thinks the twins loved Chester, he replies, “How should I know? … they’re freaks!”
Dandy rebukes him. “Please don’t call them that!” he says, and then through tears, “They were supposed to be mine, they were supposed to be mine!” (Salt & Goi, 2015).
Throughout the season, we see almost all the freaks explore sexuality in some way, through either dialogue or action. From Elsa asking the twins about the state of their sexuality in the first episode to the twins’ first sexual experience in episode 11, most of the freaks have the time and energy to express themselves sexually. This is clearly one way the show tries to humanize the freaks, by letting the viewers know that they have the same desires for pleasure that we all possess. This is an important contrast to the historical sexual exploitation that freak shows often engaged in (Alford, 2017).
The final action of the episode sets up the freaks’ survival instinct as they begin to turn on a few of their own and close ranks when they find out they have been betrayed. The first (and only) one to fall prey to the freaks’ retribution is Dell, when it is discovered that he killed Ma Petite. He is coerced into killing her in an earlier episode by Stanley (Salt & Goi, 2015).
The Freaks (1932) Connection to “Show Stoppers,” the Penultimate Episode
The inspiration that AHS:FS takes from the 1932 cult film Freaks cannot be overstated. Most of the characters in the show mirror the characters presented in the film (Cara, 2015; Harbola-Gupta, 2014). Furthermore, most of the actors in the film were real-life sideshow performers of their era; some had very lengthy careers (Cara, 2015; Harbola-Gupta, 2014). This is in contrast to the show’s sole sideshow performer being Mat Fraser, who has worked at Coney Island (American Horror Story FX, 2014, Oct 4).
Besides the obvious admiration that Ryan Murphy has for the 1932 horror movie Freaks, the movie and its themes do play a major role in shaping this season. The plot of Freaks revolves around the backdrop of a traveling circus and its performers. When the normal-size trapeze artist marries the circus midget after she learns that he has an inheritance, her sole purpose for the marriage is to steal said inheritance and then run off with her lover, the strongman. When the freaks learn about the plot against their friend, they band together to teach the trapeze artist and her lover what it truly means to be a freak. The movie was way ahead of its time, being a complete disaster when it was released. It gained cult status in the 1960s and is now considered a “forgotten masterpiece” (Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks,’ 2004).
The opening scene of the episode “Show Stoppers” pays direct homage to the film, as the freaks turn on the “normal” Stanley, who is revealed to be a con artist and a murderer. Throughout the season, he had been scheming ways to kill freaks and sell their corpses to the Museum of Morbid Curiosities. Elsa wounds Stanley with her knife-throwing act while the rest of the freaks chase him around the campgrounds. Before the opening credits roll, the freaks catch him, and we find out later in the episode that he ends up like the trapeze artist did in Freaks (Griffin, 2018). The haunting theme of American Horror Story bears striking resemblance to the eerie score of the movie.
The most overarching connection between the movie and the show is that they both deal with and shine a light on discrimination against people with disabilities [or “freaks”] by normal people. Like the film before it, the show displays the freaks as sympathetic characters, while the “normal” characters are gripped by their fear of the freaks and are therefore heartless to them. As mentioned earlier in this paper, series creator Ryan Murphy said in an interview that “What happened to this group of people [the ‘freaks’] is an American horror story” (Schottmiller, 2017; Weinstein, 2014).While he was only addressing the show’s characters in that interview, without the 1932 film, the show would not exist at all, for the film serves as the show’s underpinnings.
Before he himself is murdered in the episode “Show Stoppers,” Stanley reveals that Elsa is the one who killed Ethel, the bearded lady, in a previous episode. The freaks eventually figure this out for themselves and plan to deal with Elsa the same way they did with Dell in the last episode. This is another reference to Freaks, as the freaks in the movie live by a “Code of the Freaks”: if someone offends one freak, they offend all freaks. In the episode, the freaks never get to Elsa, as she is warned beforehand by the twins, who pay her back for saving them in the premiere episode. Elsa escapes to Hollywood after selling the show to Dandy, which sets up the final episode. Jimmy receives a pair of new hands from an old friend of Elsa’s as the episode ends (Sharzer & Peristere, 2015).
The revenge plot of Freaks echoes throughout the season, especially in the final episodes. When earlier in the episode Jimmy finds out his father has been killed, he yells at Elsa, demanding to know why. “He broke our code, he had it coming!” Elsa replies coldly, “He killed a freak, the most vulnerable among us” (Sharzer & Peristere, 2015).
In the final episode of the season, “Curtain Call,” we see all the tension of the season come to a dramatic conclusion. Instead of taking one last glance at the discrimination against people with disabilities through the attitudes of the townspeople of the 1950s, our attention is focused on Dandy Mott, the true menace of the season and the new owner of the freak show. Paul the Illustrated Seal reflects at the beginning of the episode that “Our world [the world of the freak show] is dying . . . this is the end of the line” (Gray & Buecker, 2015). That is in fact correct, as the historical American freak show saw its popularity begin to wane considerably in the 1940s, which would make this freak show one of the very last of its kind.
Most of the freaks rebel against their new show owner, and their rebellion ends violently in true horrific fashion, as Dandy murders them in their home on the campgrounds before abducting the twins. The twins are forced to marry Dandy before the last remaining freaks, Jimmy and Desiree, come to rescue them, capturing Dandy in the process. When they return to the campgrounds, we see the revenge plot of Freaks come to life in full bloom.
After trapping him in an escape tank, Jimmy tells Dandy: “You wanted to be the star of the show, now’s your chance bigshot.” When Dandy protests, claiming he is not an escape artist, he’s a song and dance man, Jimmy yells “You’re a murderer! You killed our family, shot them there in the dirt, those were good people!” Dandy tries (very much in vain) to talk his way out of his impending death, but the remaining freaks will not hear it. Desiree taunts him as the water hose starts: “Let me tell you this pretty boy, you may look like a motion picture dream boat, but you are the biggest freak of them all!” She turns the water on, and as it begins to fill up the tank, Dandy screams and begs in vain. Jimmy rebukes him one last time: “You are going to die, we sentence you and your whole rotten world to death! Look at us, we will always win because we will always defend each other to the death! You want to know why? Because we have no one else to turn to! The freaks shall inherit the Earth!” (Gray & Buecker, 2015).
Dandy’s life ends on stage in that tank filled with water, after a lot of struggling and screaming. As his character’s arc concludes, Dandy Mott proves that, to become the biggest freak of all, all someone had to do was be completely ruthless to his fellow human. Dandy thought and acted like he was above the law and could get away with anything. In the end though, the freaks proved him wrong!
We have seen (much as in real life) that society determines the “appropriate treatment” of people with disabilities, and in 1952, that social attitude was one of fear and disdain. People with disabilities are referred to as “freaks” and are regarded as only something to be gawked at on stage in a circus tent. There are very few compassionate townspeople in Jupiter, Florida, as depicted. The act of murder plays a major role in AHS:FS, and except in instances of self-defense, it is viewed as wrong, as it should be. When the terror of Twisty the Clown’s murders is put to an end by Jimmy, only then do the townspeople rally around the freaks and accept them (Salt & Deutch, 2014). However, this acceptance is short-lived (Falchuk, 2014). If series creator Ryan Murphy wanted to paint this season’s story arc as a horrific microcosm of societal discrimination against people with disabilities, he has done that in spades. That discrimination permeates the sense of world and the social organization of the culture throughout the season.
The freaks sense the maddening discrimination (or feelings of disgust, fear, or scorn) everywhere they go (i.e., the scene in “Massacres and Matinees” where they try to get service in a diner but are rejected) (Minear & Gomez-Rejon, 2014). The discrimination gets under the skin of some of the freaks, as Jimmy exclaims in almost every episode some variation of “Don’t call us freaks” or “If they [meaning the townspeople] got to know us, they would see that we are just like them!” So, even though the freak show troupe has experienced this type of discrimination before, the continuous intolerance still wears them down. The inner lives of the freaks are clearly affected, some more than others, and it is through this repeated narrative that we see that the social organization of the troupe is impacted.
Nearly everyone, be they freaks or typical, has blood on their hands—either directly or by association. From Bette to Jimmy, from Elsa to Twisty, from Dell to Dandy and almost everyone in between, few hands are untouched by blood throughout this 13-episode horror show. In a very real sense, the act of murder humanizes the freak characters. Whether committed in self-defense (e.g., when Jimmy murders a cop at the end of the premiere to protect the twins) or in vengeance (as Elsa murders Dell in retribution for Ma Petite’s death), the murders are acts of self-preservation (Murphy R., 2014; Sharzer & Peristere, 2015). We may not like seeing the characters commit the murders, but we understand them. The general society of Jupiter, Florida, does not care about the freaks, and the police department will not protect them from acts of violence, which is why the freaks had to deal with the con artist Stanley on their own terms (Sharzer & Peristere, 2015).
At the end of the day, the murders committed by Dandy Mott feel like acts of pure evil and the most vicious. It is his final massacre of most of the freaks that inspires the remaining freaks to avenge their fallen comrades and snuff out the killer once and for all (Gray & Buecker, 2015). Murder is not a pretty picture, and the show does not try to portray it that way. However, it can feel like a necessary reality, especially when law enforcement turns a blind eye to the suffering of those society views as inferior.
Throughout all the pain, horror, and terror the freaks face, which is an accurate cultural representation of the era in which the show is set, love still manages to break through. There are the examples of the father and son reconciliation between Dell and Jimmy, and the Tattler sisters accepting themselves as two souls in one body (Salt & Goi, 2015). We see this romantically in two examples: the first is the relationship of Paul the Illustrated Seal, who finds love with able-bodied Penny before they are both gunned down in the season finale; the second is found in the relationship between Jimmy and the Tattler sisters, particularly Dot Tattler, who end up married by the end of the season (Gray & Buecker, 2015).
Season four of American Horror Story proves that true terror and horror can happen outside the tent as much as within the tent, if not more so. The first viewing of the whole season will likely terrify the viewer; on the second viewing, however, after the initial shock has worn off, one gets to understand the characters and their actions better. The season is a lot less supernatural than previous seasons, so while the amount of violence is hyped up and the horror aspect of the show is sensationalized, this season is more realistic in terms of its portrayal of cultural attitudes than previous seasons.
One of the most fascinating struggles this season represents is the foundation of cultural attitudes toward disability from the perspective of people who live with them versus people who do not. The people who portray the freaks, both those who are disabled in real life and those who are not, operate from the standpoint that the cultural fear the townspeople have of their disabilities is purely a problem of society, thus the social model of disability. On the other hand, the townspeople view the characters with disabilities as “freaks” and “monsters,” believing that their deformity, their disability is their problem, their lot in life. This viewpoint, while not consciously touched upon in a meaningful way with discourse, brings to mind the medical model of disability (“Definitions of Models of Disability,” 2010).
What is a freak? Well, that depends on the era and context in which the word is used. In the closing chapter of his 1988 book Freak Show, Robert Bogdan writes: “A freak was defined not by the possession of any particular quality but by a set of practices, a way of thinking about and presenting people with major, minor, and fabricated physical, mental, and behavioral differences” (Bogdan, 1988).
The terminology of freak has a storied history. Words like freak have evolved throughout the centuries since first created, and it is only fair for this paper to return the word to its proper context in history, in hopes of inspiring various authors to take up where this paper leaves off. Most of the historical freaks did not take being called “freak” personally. To them, it was not a state of being or a description of who they were; rather, it was a job. As Bogdan writes “Words like freak did not have the deep stigmatizing and discrediting meaning that they have today… What they were called is an issue for us; it was not one for them” (Bogdan, 1988).
Obviously, as accurately reflected in AHS:FS in the early 1950s, the word has come to be a dehumanizing insult. In terms of history, that meaning was not the case in the heyday of the American freak show. The real villain here is not one single word, but rather the person who uses said word with malice. Malice is the gateway to the real freak show that sadly still exists today in America, as American Horror Story: Freak Show underscores so strongly.
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