“Only by entering will you learn its secrets.” —Elsa Mars, American Horror Story: Freak Show
From Tod Browning’s vintage horror film Freaks to HBO’s short-lived Carnivàle, pop culture portrayals of sideshows tend to be mystical, nefarious spaces filled with a secret society made up of freaks, con men and sirens. No exception to this formula, the world of American Horror Story’s fourth season—subtitled Freak Show—is gritty, campy, horrifying, and funny. But is it in any way an accurate representation of this endlessly fascinating, often misunderstood world? In a historical sense: Nope, not at all. No more so, anyway, than the presence of stab-happy clowns as an occupational hazard of the sideshow. Freak Show does, however, build its fantasy world off some of the most enduring elements of myth and reality that envelop this strange corner of American history.
FX is a fitting place for this story to be told: From the get-go, Kathy Bates’ Ethel Darling worries about the future of the great traveling shows due to to the advent of television. Her concern is valid, but a bit premature for the year in which Freak Show takes place; a number of sideshows were still doing brisk business as family entertainment in 1952. Though the pre-World War II “Golden Era” of the carnival midway had passed, many sideshows would hang on until the 1960s and ’70s, when several factors (including shifting views on disability and economic issues) wiped out all but a few shows.
Whatever the future might hold for Fräulein Elsa’s Cabinet Of Curiosities, its past (and that of its real-world counterparts) is grounded solidly and deeply in American history. It’s hardwired in our DNA, since evolution depends on both our attraction to and repulsion from deformed bodies, which reminds us of our own fragile health and the potential of our offspring. The display of human and animal curiosities has always existed, but the freak show format we see in the movies and on TV grew out of the Victorian era in Europe and the United States. The post-industrial rise of a middle class that had both disposable income and leisure time meant more opportunities for entrepreneurial showmen. The result was a boom in new ways to attract paying customers, including the birth of dime museums, vaudeville shows, amusement parks, and other inexpensive pastimes.
From these roots we get what was known to the trade as the “10-in-1,” that is, a traveling freak show that presented 10 attractions for the price of one admission. “[It] is really an American invention,” explains sideshow historian and author James Taylor, “Americans being driven more by commerce than any other goddamn thing.” According to Taylor’s research, the practice of gathering multiple acts under a single tent arose after 1893’s World’s Columbian Exposition, when cagey show promoters noticed that a number of exhibits in close proximity (particularly those featuring a human oddity) were an irresistible draw to large audiences and their dimes. The “grind show,” named for its repetitiveness, could be performed over and over again each day as patrons were quickly shuffled through the tent under the guidance of the inside talker (never called a “barker” by insiders); the entire thing could then be reset and restarted for the next set of ticket holders. With its simultaneous performances, Fräulein Elsa’s single, confetti-filled production number from American Horror Story’s “Monsters Among Us,” is really more of a 10-at-once, and would be prohibitively expensive, not to mention exhausting, to perform repeatedly on a real-world, daily basis.
Outside of a music hall, an unknown singer like wannabe starlet Elsa wouldn’t bring in much foot traffic. For most of these shows, the big draw was the freaks themselves. According to Taylor, the impresario’s formula for success was and remains “always hard sell the freak on the front of the show.” Freak Show follows suit by diving in head first to the world of “nature’s mistakes,” populating its storyline with both genuine “natural borns,” such as actor and activist Mat Fraser as Paul the Illustrated Seal and prosthetic-clad gaffes, such as Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters) the “Lobster Boy.”
For dramatic effect, American Horror Story makes it seem as though Paul and Jimmy’s unusual presence is unwelcome in the small town of Jupiter, Florida. The truth was that they would’ve been a welcome attraction considered fun for the whole family. According to Taylor, “Those shows had to be designed to pull in virtually everybody, because they were meant to be the entertainment you let sit there for a week. You didn’t want the shows to be run out of town. You didn’t make a lot of money if you were moved on after day one.” So, while the display of different bodies may have been disturbing to some, for most customers it was just another thrilling, exotic aspect of showbiz.
As with other arms of the entertainment business, performers who pulled top billing also pulled in the top money. “What does a freak that’s working for show owners know?,” asks Taylor. “They know what they’re worth.” As Freak Show’s conjoined twins Dot and Bette are finding out, they’re worth more than a supporting role at Fräulein Elsa’s. This proposition is the proverbial Elephant Man in the room. The crux of money, difference, and display is where some of the most enduring and difficult perceptions of sideshow history live: The freak show as a bastion of exploitation of people with disabilities. Fraser—who, in addition to his work as a performer, has spent years researching performers with disabilities and their shows—says he simply couldn’t find any credible cases of non-mentally impaired, adult performers being taken advantage of by sideshow producers. “I was coming from an angry disabilities activist, political actor point of view, so I went looking for that exploitation,” he says. The information he was able to gather indicated instead that performers were not only willing to put themselves onstage, but were also proud of their work. This was especially true during an era when career opportunities for people with disabilities were extremely limited. Fraser cites one of his idols, Stanislaus Berent a.k.a. Sealo The Seal Boy, as one such success story. “He worked at the sideshow from 1929 to the late ’70s and was proud of the fact that he kept his family clothed, housed, and fed throughout his entire career.”
All the worlds of American Horror Story are far-fetched in terms of plot and character, but Freak Show’s inclusion of performers with disabilities is where the franchise gets things right. Beyond his own onscreen role, Fraser says he was particularly excited to see actors with disabilities have any place on American TV. While it may still seem shocking or exploitive to some viewers, he says, the presence of people with disabilities (“apart from Peter Dinklage”) on highly rated shows is minuscule; the work by Fraser and others on AHS may serve as a jumping off point for the next phase of discussion and inclusion. “We’re not used to people with radically outsider bodies like myself in entertainment,” he explains, “so arguments about the tone and the politics must come after some visibility.” Plus, who better to play freaks and outsiders than people who fully understand all the implications of what those designations truly mean? “If we can’t even play ourselves in the history of our own showbiz lineage, then I think we’re in a pretty bad place,” Fraser says. By inviting you to really see his Illustrated Seal character, the hope is that he and his fellow “born different” castmates will be in a position to change expectations for a new generation of audience members.
While it’s too early in the season to venture a guess as to how the story will develop, it is safe to say Freak Show might be American Horror Story’s most fitting setting yet. As a franchise, AHS has never been too concerned with anachronism, reality, or even plausibility. Instead, producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have built a season-after-season hit out of the same dark thrills that draw us to horror and the sideshow over and over again: the life-affirming rush of a good scare, our innate curiosity at the different and unknown, and a good whiff of sexual intrigue. This time, in addition to lurid excitement, American Horror Story is providing a much-needed spotlight for under-represented performers.
The Lady Aye appears onstage as “The Sweetheart Of The Sideshow,” writes about pop culture from her native NYC, and would make a charming talk show guest. A thoroughly modern woman, she is also on the twitter @theladyaye.