The fourth season of Ryan Murphy’s FX anthology horror series American Horror Story, subtitled Freak Show, resets its rotating cast of regular actors into a new setting – that of a fictionalized freak show in 1960s Florida. The series capitalizes on the overarching cultural discourse of freaks throughout 20th century media and culture, particularly inspired by the depiction of freaks in Tod Browning’s Freaks and Herk Harvey’s film Carnival of Souls. Over the course of the series, however, the freaks (many of whom are played by people with the actual disabilities and deformities they purport to have) are fleshed out as characters and made innately sympathetic. In this respect, American Horror Story: Freak Show defies the typical cultural discourse around freaks as being uncanny and part of the unwanted abject.
Freakery and freak discourse heavily involves the lives and placement within society of people with physical or mental deformities, i.e. “people who are visually different” (Thomson, p. 1). Able-bodied society looks upon freaks with a mixture of anxiety and interest, viewing them as both a threat to their own uniqueness or a novelty that defies what is commonly considered to be predictable and normal within human culture. Freak bodies run outside the norm, and are therefore treated differently than those with normal bodies, thus granting them a unique and often marginal place within society. The freak show as an institution was a way to entertain able-bodied people in the early 20th century by showing them deformities and abnormalities, putting the individuals in question on display to be mocked and derided for being “cripple, queer, gimp, freak,” and other distasteful names often hurled at them through bars and in front of stages (Clare n.d., p. 258).
Much of this animosity and distancing of the able-bodied from freaks stems from the perception of freaks as the out-group, as ‘monsters’ who should not have survived the evolutionary ladder due to their perceived biological flaws (Thomson, 1996). The body of the freak is an ‘unexpected’ body, and therefore inspires “rich, if anxious, narratives and practices that probe the contours and boundaries of what we take to be human” (Thomson 1996, p. 1). This has been true throughout most of history, most acutely seen within the freak show culture of the early 20th-century, which Freak Show illustrates.
One thing Freak Show does remarkably well is allow many of the most prominent freak characters to have their own interior life. A useful example is Mat Fraser’s character of Paul the Illustrated Seal – as an actor with thalidomide-induced Phocomelia, Fraser is an actor who did not have to undergo any special prosthetics or techniques to acquire the seal-like flippers and tattoos his character has (The Lady Aye, 2014). Fraser himself has stated in interviews that he prefers the kind of honest, abject portrayal of freaks in Freak Show as opposed to the ‘inspiration porn’ much of disabled media uses to paint their stories as safe and uplifting (The Lady Aye, 2014). In addition to this representation, Paul is a major character with a deep interior life, Freak Show’s episodes showing him to be an intensely sensitive, loyal and charismatic character. His backstory, in which he moves to the US from Britain to enter the world of show business, only to be stymied by the Depression, is a deeply universal story that brings a measure of normalcy to the character (and thus makes disabled people more visible and relatable).
In this respect, and many others, Freak Show’s willingness to actually cast disabled actors in their appropriate roles, rather than giving those roles to able-bodied actors, is a welcome example of diversity and representation. Paul has a deep and loving connection to the freak show, considering everyone else his family; he even engages in sexual relationships with both Elsa and Penny in which he is an accommodating and giving partner. These things would not be remarkable if it were an able-bodied character or actor, but Freak Show’s ability to take the time to give disabled actors like Fraser such layered, complicated and compelling characterization allows it to showcase the inherent humanity of these characters – as well as their pathos at being discarded for their physical appearance.
Freak Show’s treatment of the titular freaks is incredibly layered and complex, treating most of them as fully-fledged human beings who struggle between finding their place in the world and performing for able-bodied audiences who do not respect them. As Clare notes in her appraisal of her experience as a ‘freak,’, “I am looking for friends and allies, for communities where the gawking, gaping, staring finally turns to something else, something true to the bone” (Clare n.d., p. 261). Within the context of Freak Show, this permits a window into minimizing the treatment of people with disabilities as ‘freaks,’ showing them to be both innately normal people and individuals who celebrate their differences and revel in them.
In its depiction of the humanity and community to be found within freakdom, American Horror Story: Freak Show manages to convey a more humanistic and complicated portrait of freaks during the time of freak shows than can be found most elsewhere in media. Characters like Paul the Illustrated Seal, played by disabled actor Mat Fraser, allow audiences to gain a glimpse into the world of a person with a physical deformity, offering them the same kind of quality screen time and story that most prestige TV reserves for able-bodied actors. By placing disabled people in the context of the freak show, Freak Show manages to both decry the unfairness of their treatment by the rest of able-bodied society and allow freaks to find their own subversive way to celebrate their differences in a way that feels empowering and transgressive.
Clare, E. (n.d.). Gawking, Gaping, Staring. Project MUSE.
The Lady Aye. (Nov 12, 2014). American Horror Story’s Mat Fraser won’t star in your
‘inspiration porn.’ The AV Club. Retrieved from http://www.avclub.com/article/american-horror-storys-mat-fraser-wont-star-your-i-211688.
Murphy, R. (creator) (2014-2015). American Horror Story: Freak Show [television series.]
Thomson, R.G. (1996). Introduction: From Wonder to Error – A Genealogy of Freak
Discourse in Modernity. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. NYU Press.