American Horror Story pushes limits of fear, social norms

Lauren Frias, Co-a&e editor

From haunting spirits to murderous clowns, a new popular anthology is making its viewers howl in fear. In its fourth installment, FX’s hit series American Horror Story: Freak Show is set in a dying freak show in 1952.

Finally having a theme that I deemed as truly horrifying—brimming with serial killer clowns and characters with freakish abnormalities—I had high hopes going into this series. From the get-go, episode one set the tone for the rest of the show. With a reasonable amount of background, Freak Show was able to meet American Horror Story standards of gothic and fear-invoking horror within minutes of the first episode.

Screenwriters Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk tell the story of Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange), the ringmaster of one of the last travelling carnivals of its kind, as she makes her way across the country to recruit abnormal individuals for her own bonafide freak show.

Gathering freaks “Lobster Hands” Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters), “Bearded Lady” Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates), and “Siamese Twins” Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson), Mars settled her camp in Jupiter, Florida. Unfortunately, Jupiter harbors a serial killer clown, which forces the town into an early curfew and severely decreases the audience of the show, “Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities.”

Freak Show challenges several controversial themes, one of which being the exploitation of “freaks”. Members of the cast actually have the physical anomalies shown on-screen, featuring Jyoti Amge, the world’s smallest woman; Mat Fraser, a man with shortened arms; and Erika Ervin, professionally known as “Amazon Eve” for her abnormal height. Freak shows are nowadays looked down upon for exploiting its “freaks”, and televising the “freaks” only exploits them to a larger audience.

Not only dealing with exploitation, Freak Show depicts homosexuality just as the people of the 1950s would view it: evil. “Strongman” Dell Toledo (Michael Chiklis), who shows up later on in the season, proves to not be more bothered by his sexual orientation than his superhuman strength, just one of the examples of the condescending views toward homosexuals at this time.

However, the show’s overall provocativeness is somewhat distracting. In spite of that slight disappointment, the controversial nature of the show hasn’t proved to be as much of an issue as it would have in the past, only adding to the respectable nature of the show going out of the comfort zone of most to make a more believable drama.

This season of American Horror Story had a lot to live up to, given that the series never took the “Horror” in its title seriously, in my opinion. The first season, Murder House, and the third season, Coven, turned out to be more plot-based than fear-inducing.

The plots itself were interesting and entertaining, but what of horror? Almost nonexistent. The series took a turn for the better and redeemed itself with Freak Show, not only with traditional scream horror, but with the incorporated gothic horror—psychological thrills and chills.

As a whole, this series is certainly not for the faint of heart. Murder, betrayal and sex serve as dominant themes throughout, although psychological plot twists keep you on the edge of your seat and deeper themes like morality of actions are touched on. Starting strong and ending stronger, I highly recommend American Horror Story: Freak Show for those who can stand the fear and terror that it brings to modern television.