While in reality I would never attend a freak show, given the gross commoditization and fetishization of people with disabilities, I went into the fourth season of American Horror Story (AHS) with an open mind—that was until I realized how I, by merely tuning in, am more than just a run-of-the-mill television viewer but am actually implicated in a sickening system of ableism and fetishization.
Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, the fourth installment of American Horror Story: Freak Show is set in 1950s Jupiter, Florida and centers around a group of carnies at one of the last remaining freak shows in America.
The series begins with Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) sneaking her way into a hospital—by befriending a Candy Striper Penny played by Vassar alumna Grace Gummer ‘08—to see for herself a “something extraordinary” that had recently been admitted to the hospital. That something is siamese twins Bette and Dot Tatler (Sarah Paulson). From there on out, the show follows Mars, the conjoined twins and a whole other cast of misfits and carnies as they interact with the Jupiter townies and combat the socially constructed obstacles that surround them.
While the show’s promos and opening credits initially set up the carnies as being freaks and providing the horror of this season of AHS, it becomes increasingly evident that the real monsters are not those at the freak show (although, as with all AHS characters, no one character can be accounted as fully good or innocent) but, rather, forces that lie outside the carnival tent.
And while a man with a monster-claw (Evan Peters) or even a killer clown (John Carroll Lynch) may be frightening, there is nothing more terrifying than Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock), a bratty 20-something who sips cognac out of a crystal baby’s bottle and exhibits homicidal, absolutely-sadistic tendencies.
FX’s horror anthology boasts a highly impressive cast list: In addition to Lange and Paulson, the main cast includes Evan Peters, Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, Frances Conroy, Emma Roberts, Denis O’Hare and Finn Wittrock, with guest appearances to be made throughout the season by Gabourey Sidibe, Patti LaBelle and Matt Bomer—just to name a few.
Although the lure of big names like Jessica Lange and Angela Basset initially assured my viewership, I was nonetheless made uncomfortable by the notion of freak shows and the inevitable fetishization and exploitation of people with disabilities the show was sure to exhibit. The lines are constantly crossed and blurred between when one is watching American Horror Story: Freak Show and when one is simply watching an actual freak show, as the viewers of AHS are given the same experience as those who paid Mars to watch and fetishize her show.
Furthermore, the casting of AHS: Freak Show raises serious questions of ableism and voyeurism. In addition to an array of accomplished actors playing characters with serious social disabilities—none of whom exhibit these disabilities in real life—the show’s ensemble includes the real-life smallest woman alive (Jyoti Amge), a woman whose condition left her as Legless Suzi (Rose Siggins) and other people with real-life disabilities.
Although it is wonderful that Murphy and Falchuck’s show offers acting opportunities for diferrently-abled-bodied people, the sole objective of these roles thus far is to be fetishized or made a spectacle of for their disabilities. Perhaps it is still early on in the season but if the goal of AHS: Freak Show is to remove a sense of otherness from those with disabilities, Murphy and Falchuck still have a long way to go in terms of creating characters whose complexities lie beyond their social disabilities.
That being said, like with past seasons of AHS, one can expect to view top-notch acting. Paulson in particular offers stand-out scenes with her depiction of both Tatler twins. Although they share a body, Bette and Dot Tatler are two entirely separate characters, and Paulson plays both with finesse. The twins are so distinct that it is frightening to even imagine them inhabiting a single body, and the dialogue between the two is chilling and moving.
Furthermore, the camerawork and editing of Paulson’s scenes are artfully rendered and even walk the line of ingenuity. The cutting between twin to twin is both tactful and bold and adds a lot to the overall viewing experience of each episode.
Finn Wittrock, whose resume lies heavily in theater and is rather unknown to major audiences, exhibits serious artistry when it comes to portraying childish, wicked, vindictive and psychopathic Dandy Mott. Wittrock switches from playing vindictive and murderous to wide-eyed and callow with such skill, his scenes are like candy to the viewers: (definitely of the sour-patch variety) first Mott’s sweet, than he’s sour, and he definitely leaves viewers craving for more.
In addition to powerful camerawork and acting, there are powerful themes that permeate throughout each episode and add much-needed levels of complexity to each episode beyond their exhibitionist tendencies. Serious questions are raised regarding freedom and captivity and beauty and freakishness.
The real monsters in AHS: Freak Show’s world are not those advertised as such but that horrible boy, perhaps a product of his privileged upbringing, who looks unsuspecting and, even, beautiful but is clearly the most menacing of all.