Not Horror, Not That Freaky
by Robin Reed
Don’t read this if you don’t want to know details of “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” which recently ended its run.
I am usually right there and ready to be scared when any horror film, book, or TV show comes out. When the word horror is in the title, you know I have to check it out. So when “American Horror Story” started a few years ago, I watched it. For a while. I liked it at first, but then it just got dumb. It was set in the current day (as of several years ago) so the internet existed. How hard is it to enter the address of a house you are looking at into a search engine and find out that it is internationally famous as “The Murder House” and a tour passes by every day with people who want to see it? There were some shivers and cool stuff near the beginning, but I lost all interest after a few episodes.
So I skipped the next two seasons. The only reason I decided to watch “American Horror Story: Freak Show” is that I find the circus/carnie culture interesting, and I have been treated like a freak often enough to feel some kinship to the people in such shows.
I watched every episode, with many characters I liked, and an atmosphere of dread, at least at the beginning. Many people on the internet loved to hate “Twisty the Clown,” (though that name was never mentioned in the show itself.) I thought his character was too easy for a show that was supposed to be groundbreaking. He was the show’s Freddy Krueger, or Jason. But at least he was scary. As the show went on, the scariness drained out of it.
The characters I liked best were the freaks themselves. Some were the product of special effects and makeup, but some were real people who are different. Jyoti Amge, the smallest woman in the world; Mat Fraser, who has floppy arms because his mother took thalidomide when she was pregnant with him; Rose Siggins, who was born with useless legs that were amputated so she could move herself around; and Erika Ervin, a six foot eight inch tall transgender woman.
These characters were all written as real people and had their moments in the story. As did others such as Kathy Bates as a bearded lady with a strange accent, (which I researched, finding out that it is a Baltimore working class accent.) Her son is the Lobster Boy, with hands that look like flippers. Michael Chiklis is a strongman, and Sarah Paulson is conjoined twins who look like one woman with two heads. (This really can happen, twins like that had a short-lived reality show not too long ago.)
There are also dwarves, and actors playing pinheads. Pinheads are people with microcephaly. They have small brains and thus small heads.
There were interesting characters, and interesting plot twists and turns, but the show as a whole was too long, and the decision to kill off Twisty may have seemed clever to the writers but it’s like making a Nightmare on Elm Street movie and removing Freddy Krueger less than halfway through. After he is gone we get a variety of villains, included a man who wants to kill the freaks and sell them to a museum of anatomical oddities, the strong man, who kills Ma Petite, the freak everyone loves, because he is being blackmailed by the man who wants to sell her to the museum, and of course Dandy, the local rich kid who is a blossoming serial killer.
None of these have the focus and intensity that Twisty did, so while the show might be called a drama about horrible things, it really isn’t horror. Horror makes you feel scared and uncomfortable and stays with you long after you read or watch it. American Horror Story: Freak Show was a pretty good drama about these people, but not horror.
I usually like Neil Patrick Harris, but he was brought in seemingly to showcase hoary horror concepts such as a ventriloquist dummy which may or may not be alive, and a magician really sawing a woman in half. His part in the show killed a couple of episodes but had no real effect on the story.
Jessica Lange is in every season of “American Horror Story” and she is good as Elsa Mars, the owner of the show. Her German accent sounded right to me, for someone who has been in the US for many years. Her big secret is that she is a freak too. She has two prosthetic legs. She walks on them so well that no one knows unless she rolls her stockings down to reveal them. The legs are wooden, carved to look like human legs, so I’m not sure it’s possible to walk that well and to keep them secret, and even become a TV star with the public none the wiser.
The best episode was about Pepper the pinhead. Another pinhead who she loved dies and she is inconsolable and unable to perform. Elsa takes her back to her sister, who does not want her. This ties in with an earlier season that I didn’t see, with Pepper in an insane asylum. Pepper was largely background in “Freak Show” until this episode, but becomes a character who makes us feel for her, though she can’t speak and is mentally handicapped.
I don’t know why several songs in a show set in 1952 are performed several decades before they were written. Maybe it has something to do with the overall connections between the seasons.
There are a lot of good things, but the whole doesn’t add up. There were thirteen episodes, and some were longer than an hour. I think they could be edited down to six or seven hours, and would be much better.
“American Horror Story” has a lot of fans, and they trace the connections and characters that appear in different times and locations. Personally, I have done my time and will let those fans continue to watch without me.