Academic journal article The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies

American Horror Story: Freak Show

Academic journal article The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies

American Horror Story: Freak Show

Article excerpt

American Horror Story: Freak Show (FX, 2014-15)

In 2011, American Horror Story (abbreviated here to AHS) exploded onto television screens, offering a blend of chilling terror, gruesome violence, raunchy sex, and general mind-bending weirdness explicitly designed to outrage and disgust audiences. Three thoroughly nasty but hugely entertaining series later, and this lurid combination has managed to keep viewers tuning in, and in ever greater numbers. Just when film and particularly television horror appeared in danger of becoming too predictable and bland for most devotees, AHS has singlehandedly restored its capacity to shock and revolt. Indeed, possibly not since the decadent dying days of Hammer studios has so much objectionable material gone into a production intended for a mainstream audience. AHS's astonishing worldwide popularity has proven that being relentlessly sickened is something not only horror fans enjoy.

For the uninitiated, these are the essential facts. Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, each series of AHS is a thirteen-part, stand-alone narrative featuring a large regular cast, along with several guest stars. To date, there has been a series chronicling the morbid history of a haunted house in Los Angeles, one charting the unspeakable goings-on in a lunatic asylum in 1960s Massachusetts, and another following a bloody power struggle in a witches' coven in present-day New Orleans. Since almost every episode is the work of a different writer, AHS is remarkable for the spectacularly freewheeling, twist-laden nature of its storytelling, and for a format so flexible that it has incorporated pastiches, parodies, and even song-and-dance numbers. Finally, the show's ethos seems to be that excess is something to be embraced for its own sake, and that nothing (from visuals, to music, and most of all acting) can be sufficiently over the top.

A huge part of the show's success has been due to the casting of Jessica Lange, whose phenomenal performances in the first three series have earned her two Emmy awards. Indeed, the AHS repertory cast features an unusually strong female presence, with Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Sarah Paulson, and Frances Conroy all receiving award nominations for their turns in the show. AHS has also attracted an impressive array of male actors, including such big names as Zachary Quinto, Joseph Fiennes, Ian McShane, and James Cromwell, as well as showcasing such outstanding young talent as Emma Roberts and Evan Peters. The variety of actors in each series, and the rich range of their performing styles, is one of AHS's great delights.

In Freak Show, the fourth season, Lange is Elsa Mars, proprietor of Fräulein Elsa's Cabinet of Curiosities, a travelling freak show camped in Jupiter, Florida in 1952, whose marvellous performers include Paul the Illustrated Seal (Mat Fraser), Legless Suzi (Rose Siggins), giantess Amazon Eve (Erika Ervin), and Ma Petite (Jyoti Amge), the smallest woman in the world. Utterly ruthless and fame hungry, Elsa thinks nothing of kidnapping innocents to add them to her troupe, and her latest additions are the conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson). What is more, where Elsa goes, murder and mayhem inevitably follow and her show quickly attracts a host of very unpleasant characters. Repellent wannabe star Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock) is denied a part in the troupe and exacts a sadistic revenge, a pair of confidence tricksters has evil designs on the freaks, and Twisty (John Carroll Lynch), a serial-killer clown, is on the prowl.

It would require several times this space to give even a basic account of the convoluted storyline of Freak Show, but suffice to say it takes a pleasing number of unexpected turns. While not as random or as inventive as Murder House or Asylum, it avoids the tangle of confused plot devices which made last year's Coven a muddled and lacklustre affair. Although many scenes are desperately lacking in clarity, Freak Show's dialogue is lively and contains the occasional surprising touch of subtlety. …

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