Next week (Wed., Oct. 8) will mark the return of the super successful horror anthology American Horror Story. As some may be aware, this season will take place in 1952 in the town of Jupiter, Florida, and the concept, subtitled ‘Freak Show‘, will tell the story of one of the last remaining traveling freak shows in America and their struggle for survival.
I’m personally a huge fan of American Horror Story (AHS) and have watched all three previous seasons; 2011’s inaugural Murder House, 2012’s somewhat disappointing Asylum, and last year’s Coven, which seriously raised the bar after the anticlimactic second season. With Freak Show premiering in less than a week and FX having just released the new season’s opening title sequence–which has always been a huge part of establishing each season’s distinct tone and aesthetic–on Wednesday, I figured now would be a great time to compile everything we know and can expect from the new season.
Last season’s Coven started and finished strong compared to the previous season, although just like anything else it didn’t please everyone. And as in the season before, series creators Ryan Murphy (known for Nip/Tuck and Glee) and Brad Falchuk (also Nip/Tuck) teased that the savvy viewer would find hints about the fourth season’s concept in the last episodes of the third season, which led fans to speculate about a circus or carnival theme. There were even some rather convincing fan-made teaser posters circulating on social media and forums, and while Murphy expressed that the fourth season would not be subtitled ‘Circus’, the only details he gave were that it would be a period piece (1950s) and Jessica Lange‘s character would be based on Marlene Dietrich, the German actress and singer who became moderately famous in Hollywood and toured the world in the 1950s through the 1970s as a very successful show performer.
The Cast of Freak Show
News of which of the show’s cast members would return (albeit always in a new role) trickled out here and there, but it wasn’t until March that Murphy sent out the tweet that fans had been waiting for and the mysterious fourth season finally got its name. Murphy also confirmed the return of Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Angela Bassett, and Frances Conroy as circus freaks rescued by Lange’s Marlene Dietrich-esque character. Denis O’Hare and Emma Roberts were also confirmed to be returning, though at the time little was known about their roles.
Freak Show Development
One of the main themes of the new season, given the time period in which it takes place, will be people from different walks of life standing up for their civil rights. Specifically, Murphy says that the performers in the show have put up with centuries of abuse and are getting to the point where they aren’t going to take it anymore.
“The carnies historically were always thought of as lower than thieves, lower than vermin. They were not allowed to sit in certain parts of diners. They were not allowed in movie theaters. They were really ostracized from society. They were thought of as the dregs.”
And contrary to Lange’s more villainous Fiona in last season’s Coven, her character this season, Elsa Mars, is a benevolent German ex-pat who has gone around to hospitals and jails rescuing all these “freaks”, signing guardianship waivers before they can be shipped off to asylums and loony bins, and becomes a sort of mother to all of them. But it’s not until she rescues Paulson’s character(s) Bette and Dot, the conjoined twins, and they become the show’s headlining attraction that Elsa’s show really takes off with people traveling far and wide to catch a glimpse of the freaks.
Kathy Bates and Evan Peters will play Ethel and Jimmy Darling, respectively, mother (and bearded lady) and son who both work for and appear in the freak show. Ethel had been a huge star in the circus circuits prior to Jimmy’s birth, at which point she becomes a drunk until Elsa rescues her from the drunk tank and she becomes Elsa’s second-in-command and henchwoman of sorts. Meanwhile, Jimmy is the “big man on campus” until Michael Chiklis’ character, Dell the strong man and Jimmy’s father, joins the troupe and they begin vying for the role of alpha male.
Angela Bassett’s character is Desiree, the strong man’s new wife who also has three breasts. She joins the freak show after being on the run with her husband and immediately butts heads with Bates’ character who had previous been married to Chiklis’ strong man.
Oh, the tangled webs we weave.
Akin to the deceitful starlet Emma Roberts played last season, this year she will play a fortune-telling con artist–complete with crystal ball–who joins the show to help them, but apparently that will backfire. Roberts’ character will also be romantically involved with Jimmy Darling (Peters), which isn’t too shocking as Murphy has admitted to being very fond of the young-starcrossed-lovers trope and using it shamelessly every chance he gets. So between these young lovers and the Bassett-Bates-Chiklis love triangle mentioned above, we can probably expect tons of lusty angst, longing gazes, plenty of lingering touches, and lots more melodrama where that comes from.
Denis O’Hare’s character is a con man in cahoots with Roberts’ fortune-telling schemer. Frances Conroy and Finn Wittrock play mother and son Gloria and Dandy Mott, respectively. The Motts are Palm Beach, high society, wealthy types; Dandy is desperate to join the freak show due to copious teenage angst and feeling like a freak himself, and Gloria will do anything in her power to prevent that from happening.
And of course we can’t forget Twisty the Clown, played by John Carroll Lynch. According to Murphy, the story is this: Lynch’s character was a successful clown performer who eventually retired to the town of Jupiter, Florida. So naturally, the freak show arrives in Jupiter, and this makes Twisty none too happy. In protest, Twisty decides to terrorize the performers while in full clown garb. Murphy said they went all-out with Twisty since the fear of clowns (coulrophobia) is so widespread, and more than one-third of the production crew had to leave the set when they filmed Twisty’s scenes due to him being so frightening–and the demented mask he wears allegedly pales in comparison to the horror of what the mask is concealing… Intriguing! (Sharpened teeth perhaps?)
Patti LaBelle and Gabourey Sidibe will play a well-to-do mother-daughter pair in the show, though their names are not yet known. What we do know is that LaBelle is a friend to Frances Conroy’s character, and Sidibe is a sorority girl studying in New York at the start of the show, but finds herself returning to Jupiter when she’s suddenly unable to reach her mother on the phone–perhaps a clue to one of the season’s inevitable deaths?
And more has been revealed about Wes Bently’s character of Edward “Eddie” Mordrake besides his quest for revenge against the bearded lady. Murphy said Eddie Mordrake is based on a “famous horror myth” and is a man with two faces. Although the name and that description didn’t ring any bells for me personally, lo and behold there was an actual person named Edward Mordrake who had two faces! On the show, Eddie is a man with an “evil” face on the back of his head, like a carbon copy of his “primary” face, but it whispers things to him and directs him to commit horrible atrocities.
According to the Wikipedia article, much of the known tale has been exaggerated or fabricated. Most credible sources suggest that the second face couldn’t speak and had very limited movement, but that it could laugh and cry. However, it also says that Mordrake, a nineteeth-century heir, begged doctors to remove his second face, claiming it whispered things to him and tried to get him to commit evil deads. While researching Mordrake, Murphy said he learned of a Bloody Mary-esque superstition that carnies used to have involving Mordrake, so it will definitely be interesting to see how all of this comes together and is incorporated into the season’s mythology.
In terms of the mechanics of Freak Show, we shouldn’t expect much of a supernatural element. Murphy says when a character dies this season, they’re definitely dead; there’s no coming back the way the house hoarded ghosts in the first season or the aliens brought characters back without warning in season two or how last season the dead could be resurrected with magic rather easily. He said that Freak Show feels like it’s in the same world as Asylum, yet in some ways is totally different and feels like something new, both tonally and in terms of the content.
Main Title Sequence Revealed, and Other Videos
On Wednesday, FX posted the new opening title sequence for the upcoming season featuring a marquee of the casts’ names in addition to a host of eerie, unsettling imagery. You can view the video below or by clicking here.
The sequence opens on a somewhat nondescript carousel, and one of the first things you might notice is the music; the theme used for the first three seasons seems absent, replaced with a stripped-down, melancholic tune you might expect to hear from a music box or vintage funhouse. And then you hear it: That token grating, grinding, heavy reverb triggers the traditional AHS theme, which then plays simultaneously with the carnival music. In the previous three seasons’ main titles, the theme stayed more or less the same with only minor tweaks, so as far as the theme goes this is more of a departure than we’ve yet seen.
Meanwhile, we see a midget clown peeking out from behind a circus cart, and a close-up of a clown’s hands as he stretches and blows up a balloon and begins twisting it into presumably a balloon animal; the footage jerks and twitches, typical of this show and a common effect in horror films because it makes the movement seem unnatural and is just generally disconcerting and uncomfortable to the viewer. The effect is great here because it takes what would otherwise be a fun experience, going to the carnival and balloon animals, and makes it ominous and unsettling.
Text is displayed among scenes reminiscent of the miniaturized theaters used in puppet shows; but instead of puppets, skeletons–both human and humanoid–move about freely as if alive on bikes or interacting with set pieces. A one-legged midget with horns on its head hobbles across the ground and a miniature skeleton gets frisky with his little skeleton friend while they’re hidden among the comparatively huge carnival rides.
In another scene, a two-headed character reminiscent of a Tim Burton film (think A Nightmare Before Christmas or even Coraline) spins while strapped down to a rotating circular disk. Then there are images of frightening clowns that move on their own, some with sharpened teeth like you see in Stephen King’s It. A toy monkey with cymbals looks toward the audience menacingly. There are a number of other freak types, such as a boy in a wheelchair with elephantiasis of his legs, a fat man sitting like a Buddha statue, and even a naked woman figure with a third leg sticking out of her vagina (see above).
And speaking of vagina, there are a lot of sexual images in the sequence. The way the clown handles the balloon at the beginning of the sequence is very suggestive, and there’s even implied sex (see above image containing “Emma Roberts” where two skeletons are seen having sex while standing–the cone is the phallus) and masturbation too, albeit in both cases the participants are midget skeletons. I’m not exactly sure what this stuff is meant to evoke in the viewer, but having looked at the sequence rather closely, I find most of these sequences to just be hysterically funny.
Despite the crass sexual references that’ll tickle the funny bone of anyone who finds the word “panties” to be laughable, this season’s opening title sequence seems to be right on the mark. It’s got all your standard 50s-era carnival imagery, but with a prominent sense of foreboding and mystery; the setting may be a freak show, but we’re led to believe there’s something off about this one. And given the show’s track record, we can pretty much expect there to be.
Like the previous seasons, there have been many short clips released in the months leading up to the show’s premier, clips like “Let It Out” and “Back to Back” and “Hand In Hand“. The clips are meant to both tease and surprise. A short teaser trailer called “Voyeur” and a promo for the first episode, entitled “Monsters Among Us”, were released on September 30, which give us our first looks at the actors in character.
Based on what we know and what we’ve seen in previous seasons, I think we can count on Freak Show taking famous carnival- and circus freak-themed horror tropes and juicing them up on steroids. AHS tends to have a go-big-or-go-home commitment to their story, and if the promotional materials, videos, and details we’ve been given thus far are any indication, Freak Show is going to be a horror extravaganza the likes of which we’ve never seen before!
So get your ticket to the Freak Show next Wednesday, October 8, 2014, at 10pm (ET) on FX!
[Visit AHS Freak Show on FX to stream episodes online.]