I’ve been to a couple of circuses and even performed at a freak show once (for charity, and of the non-horrifying variety), but that was an experience. Personally, I think this is the scariest, most grotesque title sequence I’ve ever seen. I love the addition of the toy piano against American Horror Story’s theme. I want to make it my ringtone, but I don’t think I could handle it, especially if the phone rings at night. The stop-motion animation is new and horrific, overtly sexualized, and just deeply disturbing. Did you see the doll-babies in the cage with the claw hands and the head switching? That’s the stuff of nightmares, friends.
Past the credits, American Horror Story: Freak Show immediately stands out from its sister-seasons with its hyper-saturated color scheme. It reminds me a bit of Pushing Daisies, with all those bright, vibrant reds, yellows, and greens. It’s nice to see some color in the usually dark and morbid world of American Horror Story. This time, the freak show has residence in Jupiter, Florida in the 1950s.
Be warned, discussing this show will require spoilers…
Ryan Murphy, the writer and director, really cut the pacing of this year’s show. We see a lot of sets—hospital, the tents, a diner, a park—but the story is slowly unwinding rather than throwing us in. I’m hoping against hope that this means Freak Show doesn’t fall under the curse of the previous seasons and try to do too much. So far, there are no aliens, just a nice stroll through the environment, taking characters a few at time.
And then there’s murder. Every season has to start with the traditional brutal murder of someone. Enter the milkman, who I’m pretty sure wasn’t allowed to just walk into a home. I guess horror films don’t exist in this horror world, which is the only reason I can see characters breaking the basic rules.
Horror Rule No. 1: Don’t go up the stairs. Not in a dark house, not where you’ve just found a body.
When you go hunting for murderers, you’re going to get murdered. Usually. Of course, things work out for the milkman, so he gets a pass. Thanks to him, we meet our first freaks: Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson). By now you may know I’m a huge fan of special effects and ingenious design, and Bette and Dot, the two-headed girls, are astonishing. Paulson has definitely become one of my favorites and she pulls off her character brilliantly. I really loved the use of the split-screen when they meet Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange), and the way they portray the different personalities.
Bonus: they’re telepaths. Double bonus: they’re murderers. Remember the body the milkman found, Ms. Tattler? Sweet, innocent Bette killed their mother. They’re on the run, and who should be there to spirit them away but Elsa?
Elsa Mars is an interesting study as well. She’s the owner of the freak show, and she’s determined to acquire Bette and Dot. We don’t get to know a whole lot about Elsa, other than her origin from her German accent, but what we do get is pretty great. She has a burn book for Marlene Dietrich, which I find hilarious. She’s fierce, and once again, we’re treated to a very bizarre musical number, which will certainly not be the last.
Elsa sings Bowie’s “Life on Mars,”rather poorly, but in a powder blue suit with matching eyeshadow. I read in an interview with Murphy that he’s taken a page from Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby and has pulled modern music into our little 1950s Freak Show. Could be interesting. What really sold me on Elsa was her show-stealing moment at the end of the episode: taking off her prosthetic legs. We have no idea she’s missing her legs until that moment, and just before the credits roll, there’s this overwhelming sense that Elsa finds herself more of a freak than her entire company.
Then there’s Twisty (an almost unrecognizable John Carroll Lynch). I can feel the nightmares bubbling in the back of my head. He is disgusting; he’s filthy, blood spattered, and has this horrible rictus grin. He murders a girl's boyfriend in a park by clubbing him, then stabbing him.
Horror Rule No. 2: Don’t trip. Of the couple, our sad girlfriend made the right choice by wearing sensible shoes, but she looked back and fell over her own two feet.
If that wasn’t creepy enough, Twisty breaks into people’s homes to murder them, steals children, and lives in a murder bus out in the woods where he collects said children and smaller, creepier clowns. I can’t tell if he wants to entertain and be adored (since he gets angry and trashes the place when the kids show fear), but maybe he could start by not being so unsettling. Maybe wash your costume. And your face.
Murphy promised us Twisty’s story in episode four, and he promised it was going to get so much worse. If you are terrified of clowns, please do not watch this show at night. The last we see of Twisty, he’s witnessing the other freaks hiding the body of the detective Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters) murdered to protect Bette and Dot.
In the final vein of creep, we have Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock) and his mother, Gloria (Francis Conroy). If Norman Bates lived in the 1950s, he’d be Dandy Mott. We know they’re wealthy, and we know he’s bored, which makes him very dangerous. In the previews for future episodes, Gloria is seen telling Dandy she’s gotten him something he’s always wanted: a clown. Who the hell wants a clown? And you know which clown it is. This isn’t going to end well.
I was hardly surprised, but deeply disappointed that, once again, the American Horror Story writers felt it necessary to use rape as a plot device. In Season 1, Vivian is raped in order to produce the anti-christ, the child of the living and the dead. I can give them that one. In Season 2, Lana is raped by Bloody Face. In Season 3, Madison is raped at a frat party. And here, in Season 4, the candy girl, Penny (Grace Gummer), is shown in a sex tape with the freaks. I really don’t see the need to keep reiterating something so tasteless and frankly offensive. While I love the bold and creative things American Horror Story has done over the past four years, I’m sick of seeing women belittled and objectified for the sake of “horror.” It’s not a gimmick.
I sincerely hope Freak Show can redeem itself because it feels like solid story. I’m interested to see where it’ll go, to learn the origin of Twisty and see just how screwed up Dandy gets. I like the juxtaposition between judging acts in a freak show and examining the lives of “normal”people. I’ve purchased my ticket and I’m strapped in for the ride. Are you?
Meghan Harker grew up in a small, awkwardly-named town in Georgia. She attended Brenau University, where she earned her BA in English and a minor in Graphic Design; she also attended the University of Cambridge, England, where she didn't quite master the perfect Oxbridge accent. She's an avid reader, writer, and fire spinner. She's currently working her first novel, a paranormal thriller. Visit her blog at ExquisitelyOdd.com.
Read all posts by Meghan Harker for Criminal Element.