Who’s the Freak Now?
A wrap-up of “American Horror Story: Freak Show.”
by Nevada McPherson
Having just gone through my first week without an episode of “Freak Show,” I’ve had some time to process this installment of the American Horror Story anthology.
When it began, I came to the show like anyone heading to a freak show, drawn by curiosity and the promise of more than a glimpse of the unusual, the bizarre, maybe even the morbid. What I got was a panoramic extravaganza, not just of a traveling tent show set in 1950s rural Florida, but many aspects of American society writ large in the right now. Seduced by Elsa Mars’s performances of modern musical mash-ups channeling David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich, concurrently (though Elsa says it was Marlene who stole her act), I felt that the television show itself, though over-the-top at times, successfully blended the horrifying and deadly serious with enough heart and wit to make it incredibly entertaining. And so what if it was over-the-top? It’s shot throughout with the element of big-top circus spectacle. We should expect nothing less.
If one came to see the “freaks,” the members of Elsa’s company cease to be freaks in the normal (did I say normal?) sense over the course of the series, one by one becoming fully-realized, well-rounded, relatable, sympathetic characters, each with his or her own incredible journey to Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities, including Elsa herself. The Bearded Lady, her son Jimmy the Lobster Boy, the Pinheads Salt and Pepper, Ma Petite, the Incredible Tattooed Seal Man, Dot and Bette, the conjoined twins, and Desiree, the woman with three breasts, among others, all cease to be what the public thinks of as freaks, but are just people who look out-of-the-ordinary trying to survive in a society that values conformity above all else. This is why the charms and thrills of the freak show seem so illicit and tap into the hunger for the exotic and forbidden that those proper Tupperware party ladies and button-down business men try to hide. It’s also why the ladies that have Tupperware parties hire Jimmy to perform sexual favors with his lobster claws as one by one they take breaks from their dainty snacks and perusing the latest in food storage to go into the bedroom for sexual release. Over-the-top? Perhaps, but this is just an illustration of the repression of the times, hence the need to go a little wild.
The freak show is a place to indulge those desires voyeuristically and when the so-called freaks leave the camp and go into town they get stares of fascination mingled with hostility. Their exoticism belongs in the dim confines of the red and white striped tents, not in the bright light of conventional day where the citizens of Jupiter, Florida, are confronted with their extreme “otherness.”
Over the arc of “Freak Show,” it becomes glaringly obvious that the performers of Elsa’s show are not the real freaks. As author Flannery O’Connor once said, “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” As Ms. O’Connor knew, the real freaks, Southern and otherwise, are the ones you wouldn’t think twice about seeing in town.
There’s Dandy, the handsome rich boy, whose good looks get him invited into the Tupperware party after Jimmy is banished for being drunk and unkempt. It’s also Dandy who perpetrates the massacre that takes place there, then pins it on Jimmy. There’s the policeman Dora’s daughter goes to for help after Dandy admits to killing her mother, but the policeman shoots her dead in exchange for the mountains of money Dandy promises him. There’s the enterprising grifter posing as a Hollywood agent also in it for the money who plans to kill the freaks and sell their corpses or body parts to a “museum” in Philadelphia that touts itself as somehow contributing to scientific discovery, but is really a bogus inversion of Elsa’s freak show, taking it out of the tent and putting it in bottles of formaldehyde for rich people to gaze upon. Once again, the real freaks here are the ones gazing at the lifeless spectacle along with the pretentious woman who runs the museum and purchases these specimens. There’s also the upstanding-looking veteran who has a homicidal history stateside and looks to an equally homicidal wooden doll for advice. Jealousy is the source of his freakishness though his crimes will probably get him thrown into the asylum rather than prison.
Other factors are at work but greed drives much of the violence on the show. Greed and fear abound: two phenomenally destructive forces. Elsa’s “monsters” as she affectionately calls them (remind you of another famous pop star who refers to her adoring fans the same way?) are constantly persecuted, endangered and killed by the real freaks, whose morbid cravings are the source of their true grotesque freakishness. However, there’s some danger from within the tent city as well, especially from those heavily under the influence of those aforementioned “normal-looking” freaks (Strong Man, I’m looking at you).
There’s so much more I’d love to examine about “Freak Show,” but perhaps another time. All I know is that I was mesmerized by it every week from the very beginning. Things reached such operatic heights at times that I couldn’t imagine how so much chaos, pain, violence, betrayal and retribution could ever be contained by the final episode, but the show was never devoid of heart, soul and compassion. Chaos, pain and the other items on the above list are everywhere in the media: television, movies, video games, and of course, also in real life. What kept me coming back to “Freak Show” each week was that, like in the most violent scenes in King Lear (yes, that King Lear) where pain was inflicted there was someone who would come along soon to alleviate the pain. The ones they call freaks stick together. The ones who are the real freaks remain on the other side of the footlights, in the dark of the tent, and even darker night of the lost soul.
Originally from Georgia, Nevada McPherson lived in uptown New Orleans for several years and now lives near Asheville, North Carolina. She received a BA in English/Creative Writing and an MFA in Screenwriting from Louisiana State University. She has written over a dozen feature-length screenplays, one short screenplay and two graphic novels. Read her previous post At the Corner of Noir and Southern Gothic here.