American Horror Story kicks off its fourth season October 8th with the latest, and some say the most terrifying, incarnation of the ongoing anthology show. Considering that the previous seasons of the show have been set in an asylum, in a haunted house, and among a coven of witches to call the upcoming season the scariest one is not a small thing. But, from what has been released so far it looks like Ryan Murphy has taken American Horror Story to a place even scarier than the other locations by setting it in 1952 in one of the last remaining freakshow carnivals. The action this time takes place in 1952 at a small freakshow run by a German expatriate played by Jessica Lange. Lange has said in interviews that this will be her last season on American Horror Story and she is definitely going out on a terrifying note.
Freakshows have a long history of providing entertainment in Europe and in the US. For almost 100 years freakshows and carnivals were the most popular entertainments for people. Sideshows would travel around the country in the US stopping in towns along the way to perform. Sideshow performers were a mix of legitimate people with biological deformities and conditions that made them rarities and hoaxes put together by the owners of the sideshows to bring in more money. One of the most famous sideshow hoaxes was P.T. Barnum’s “FeeJee Mermaid” which was supposedly a living mermaid but was really the skeletons of several creatures combined. Smoke and mirrors and special lighting were used to hide the hoax.
For over a century the sidehow, even though it was exploitative of people who were handicapped or suffered from rare medical conditions, was seen as a way for people who had no other options to support themselves. Dwarves, conjoined twins, and people with other rare conditions joined up with circus style performers to create an entertaining show that people paid a lot of money to see. Behind the scenes the conditions that the performers lived in were often terrible, and the owners of the sideshows were often abusive and kept the performers in a form of indentured servitude.
As the film industry flourished movies became a more popular form of entertainment and the circus sideshows faded in popularity. The 1952 setting of American Horror Story: Freakshow is just about the right time for the last gasps of the sideshow industry. The added desperation of being part of a dying industry will add another level of darkness to the show, although it’s already pretty sinister.
People have always been at once fascinated and terrified by the freaks of the freakshow. As scientific discoveries progressed and more was learned about the biological and genetic conditions that caused freaks of nature people were not quite so terrified of the people who were exhibited in the freakshows but they remained objects of fascination. In the 90s the alternative movement started to reclaim the freakshow and performers that were heavily tattooed and pierced began to revive sideshow acts from the past like acrobatic performances, feats of strength, and magic. Burlesque arts began a similar revival around that time.
American Horror Story: Freakshow will play to one of the darkest fears that people have which is the mortal fear of monsters. The freaks in the freakshow are monsters, in many different forms. They are victims too, in some ways. But the images of murderous clowns and evil freaks as seen through the sinister filters that Ryan Murphy is so good at creating promise to give fans of AHS the scariest season yet. Only time will tell if the show will continue to dig deeper into the darkness with each season of the show but if Freakshow lives up to the hype it’s a good indication that the show will continue on. Some people felt that American Horror Story: Coven, the third season, was a little too slick and commercialized. That won’t be the case in the upcoming fourth season where fans will get treated to some old school terror delivered through the colored lens of the freakshow.