Friday, December 5, 2014

American Horror Story's Freak Show — The New Abnormal

This season of the show takes the 1932 movie “Freaks” as an inspiration.
Illustration by Sachin Teng

The New Abnormal

The carnival logic of “American Horror Story.”

“A little culture for the TV viewers. God knows they need it,” Madame Elsa, played by Jessica Lange, purrs. A sideshow impresario and a double amputee, Elsa has just finished crooning “September Song” to her lover, Paul the Illustrated Seal—she’s rehearsing for her anticipated musical début on that novelty stage of the nineteen-fifties, the television screen. Handsome as a matinée idol, Paul (Mat Fraser) reclines on an ottoman, his flippers resting beside his tattooed chest.

Dot & Bette Tattler -the conjoined twins played by Sarah Paulson,
performing double-duty — taking approx.12 to 15 hours to film
“American Horror Story” has always been a show dedicated to spectacle, and when I first heard that this season would be set in a freak show in Florida I yelped out loud. What could be more perfect? Brassy and divinely decadent, “American Horror Story,” which was co-created by Ryan Murphy and is now in its fourth season, is one of TV’s few truly experimental series—and, like many seedy carnivals, it’s been subject to both nervous laughter and progressive criticism. A mashup of sensational genres, from horror to vaudeville, the show has revived the anthology model, with a new setting and a new story each season. A revolving repertory of actors—Lange, Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates, Denis O’Hare—play different roles each round (and often adopt ever crazier accents). Like many of Murphy’s shows (he also created “Glee” and “Nip/Tuck”), “American Horror Story” doesn’t always make sense. Sometimes, as with “Coven,” last season’s arc, which dealt with witchcraft and slavery, it’s downright clumsy about its incendiary themes. But when it shines—as was the case during its most brilliant season, “Asylum”—the show is a true provocation, a scream in both senses, drawing little distinction between a scare, a turn-on, an eye roll, and a giggle. It’s a smart show that’s never haughty or solemn, with an aesthetic that’s reflexively shameless, in the best way, about serious subjects—including, this season, disability.

Andrew Solomon, in his excellent book “Far from the Tree,” describes two kinds of identity available to the disabled: “vertical” (the family they’re descended from) and “horizontal” (the people with whom they share a physical trait, like dwarfism or deafness). “Freak Show” is about many things—clown phobia, snuff films, David Bowie—but, primarily, it’s about horizontal identity, as viewed in a fun-house mirror, distorted by fury and desire. In this theme, it replicates its source material: the classic horror movie “Freaks” (1932), which was about circus performers who take violent revenge on a villainous “normal” woman, Cleopatra, when she exploits a member of their troupe. (If Cleopatra existed in the modern era, the word for her would be “ableist.”) The director Tod Browning’s pet project (he ran away at sixteen to join the circus himself), the film was a notorious flop, and wrecked its creator’s career. The studio demanded that Browning edit out a castration sequence and add a sappy ending; even so, after a test screening the producers were accused of causing a moviegoer’s miscarriage. In the nineteen-seventies, “Freaks” became a cult sensation, best known for the chant “Gooble, gobble! One of us, one of us!”

“Freak Show” is an elaborate remix of the original, stamping Browning’s iconic characters with Murphy’s high-camp image: Cleopatra becomes Lange’s Germanic dominatrix, who lost her legs to a chain saw; Michael Chiklis plays a closeted strongman; Kathy Bates is a poignant bearded lady; Angela Bassett is a three-breasted “hermaphrodite”; and Sarah Paulson is the conjoined twins Dot and Bette, who lean in from the sides of the frame like wilted stalks. (They’re so frequently filmed as reflections in mirrors that, often, they feel like doubles of a double.) We’re now two-thirds of the way through the season, and the series continues to offer up variants on the “Freaks” narrative, about a “normal” girl who flirts with a “freak,” placing them side by side with more earnest themes, like the hunt for a non-bigoted doctor. Murphy has also folded in his own obsessions: glam-rock musical numbers, homoerotic serial killers, and the toxic effects of Hollywood vanity.

Refreshingly, the season is also genuinely frightening, with at least one truly nightmarish vision per week. It opened with one of the series’s dirtiest, weirdest villains yet, a mute clown named Twisty, who kidnapped children; once Twisty was dispatched, up popped a chilling replacement, Dandy, a preening sociopath who styles himself the U.S. Steel of Murder. Dandy became Twisty’s assistant, or maybe just his unpaid intern, after he received the clown as an ill-conceived gift from his mother. A spoiled American man-child, Dandy murders as a form of narcissistic tantrum—or perhaps, his mother suggests, as the result of upper-class inbreeding. “Jack the Ripper was a Windsor, for God’s sake!” she exclaims.

Like “Freaks,” “Freak Show” also mingles able-bodied actors—some wear prosthetics, while others are altered with special effects—with what the marvellously charismatic Mat Fraser terms a “radically different person onstage entertaining with their radical difference.” Fraser is a British performance artist, sometimes using the name Seal Boy, who has created shows like the burlesque “Beauty and the Beast” and “Thalidomide!! A Musical.” There’s also Jyoti Amge, as Ma Petite, a tiny dwarf; the trans actress Erika Ervin, as the giantess Amazon Eve; and Ben Woolf, who has pituitary dwarfism, as Meep, a pinhead. Rose Siggins, who was born with a condition called sacral agenesis, plays Legless Suzi. When the season began, these characters had few lines, which suggested a tricky hierarchy: the real-life Seal Boy was an extra in scenes starring Evan Peters’s prosthetically created Human Lobster. But, midway through the season, Murphy began to shift the spotlight, mining these bodies and personalities for warmth, sex, and tragedy. A sequence in which the lovable Ma Petite stands in a large glass jar, fluttering her fingers like a butterfly, became one of the show’s most frightening bits of poetry, like some candied fairy tale from Oscar Wilde.

Not surprisingly, Murphy’s approach has triggered complaints of exploitation—and not for the first time. Four of Murphy’s shows include characters, and actors, who have Down syndrome. On “Glee,” Artie (played by an able-bodied actor) was in a wheelchair. In “Asylum,” Chloë Sevigny played a nymphomaniac whose limbs had been amputated. There are many other examples—in fact, there are so many disabled characters in Ryan Murphy’s series that it’s impossible to judge these portrayals as a class, although it’s worth noting that, like Madame Elsa, Murphy is the rare impresario who explores this subject matter at all. Along with the concern that he’s a huckster, his shows raise the question of what it means to have stars “crip” or “spack up”—disdainful terms for able-bodied actors playing disabled characters. This debate, among disability advocates, has analogues to similar issues about cross-racial and transgender roles, from Mickey Rooney’s notorious “yellow-face,” in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” to Jared Leto’s turn as a transgender character, in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Activists complain that Hollywood stars win Oscars, and score points for “bravery,” in roles that could go to a disabled actor. They resent the notion that disability itself is a costume. That’s what acting is, of course: it’s putting on a new identity. But what makes blackface different from drag, or from adding a flipper?

Jared Leto's transgender role as Rayon, a transsexual woman living w/
AIDS in Texas during the 1980s on Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
In Murphy’s case, I’m no fan of some of the more sentimental disability plots on “Glee,” or of the dirty jokes given to Becky, a cheerleader with Down—gags that felt both queasy and hackish, although no more so than other aspects of the show, in later seasons. Given the rarity of disabled bodies on TV, it can verge on icky (or problematic, to use that awful term of art) to view those few through a fish-eye lens. And while Sarah Paulson is revelatory as the conjoined twins—and I wouldn’t want anyone but Lange to play Elsa—I found myself rooting for the “real disabled” to be more than color, or moral coverage, among the able-bodied stars. It was a relief when Fraser was effectively promoted, becoming the heartthrob of a romantic triangle with Elsa and Penny (Grace Gummer), the candy striper he fell for during an opium-addled orgy.

Still, the related complaint, that the characters are bad role models, misses the point, from my perspective. “Freak Show” embodies the philosophy put forth by Fraser in a promotional video for the series: while do-gooders view the sideshow as nefarious, it was, historically, the one place where people with odd anatomies were glamorized, not hidden away. There they could make money, live independently, and find sex and love. The difference between gawking and gazing, fearing and desiring, is not so simple. Murphy’s “freaks”—both the organic and the artificial ones—aren’t lessons for the able-bodied, and when the show does veer into pedantry (“You’re the real freaks!”) it’s at its weakest. They’re divas and lovers and revengers and martyrs, who get to experience the extremes of human emotion. There are enough of them so that they can’t be only one thing. At the show’s best moments, they’re stars, not props.

“American Horror Story” will never be for every viewer; it is, above all else, rude. In the first season, it was rude about a rapist in a black latex gimp mask. In the second season, it was rude about a lampshade made of breast skin. In the third season, it was so rude that it was incoherent. By rude, I don’t mean “politically incorrect,” that inane term for celebrating stupid remarks for their honesty. I mean rude in a grander sense: brazen and crude and funky, open to the ugly as well as to the beautiful, with a vision of the body as a source of both suffering and ecstasy. This sort of rudeness derives from the understanding that, some of the time, a demand for politeness is really a demand to be quiet and disappear.

This coarseness gives the show leeway to be, at times, both nasty and funny, making it impossible to distinguish its best from its worst—as in a recent episode in which a “normal” was tattooed, and her tongue forked, against her will, a sequence that felt at once nonsensical and indelible. The series is endlessly, archly quotable: “They said I made men ejaculate gold,” Elsa reminisces, of her days as a dominatrix in the Weimar Republic. If it risks going too far, that’s an “American Horror Story” tradition, too—it’s why we watch through our fingers, squinching our eyes. Why go to the circus if there’s no chance of blood? ♦

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