I was skeptical about American Horror Story: Freak Show. The first two seasons of AHS were riveting, but the franchise seemed to lose its luster during the third season. I felt that AHS: Coven was a convoluted mess of limp storylines and uninteresting characters that couldn’t seem to decide if it wanted to be a gritty thriller or a witchy cross between Frankenstein and Mean Girls. Freak Show had promise, but I was worried about it as the fall season started.
Many pagans loved Coven. Understandable; it was about witches. It’s nice to see your subculture reflected on mainstream television, even if it is a fantasy version filled with revenge killings and race wars. Clearly, they saw something I didn’t see. That’s cool. I just felt that, from a storytelling perspective, it didn’t live up to its predecessors.
SPOILER ALERT: I’VE TRIED TO BE VERY GENERAL, BUT THERE MAY BE FREAK SHOW SPOILERS AHEAD
Freak Show, however, should be the season that pagans truly embrace. It had its tenuous moments, but in the end it painted a much more rich and thoughtful picture of those of us who live a life that’s a little off the beaten path. The season quickly drew a dichotomy between “normal people” and “freaks,” and then used that tension to drive a constant theme: What seems “normal” is simply a mask that hides your true nature. Freaks may be ugly on the outside, but the rest of society is ugly on the inside.
Start with the obvious candidate: Dandy. Played by Finn Wittrock, who may be the best actor in the show’s tenure, Dandy is the privileged pretty boy whose expansive mansion and baby-faced good looks hide the true darkness within. He is everything that so much of mainstream society looks up to: wealthy, handsome, powerful, and yet he is bored. He is ungrateful. He violently takes out his frustration on those who have less than him.
That pattern continues. Through the season, we see a “normal” father horribly mutilate his daughter because he disagrees with her dating choices. We see museum owners pay for the murder of innocent human beings, freaks though they may be, in order to display their remains in specimen jars. We see Chester Creb, a creepy war veteran expertly played by Neil Patrick Harris. While he is certainly mentally ill, he is not a “freak.” He hides his dark, murderous secrets as long as he can.
In fact, it seems like the closer to normal appearance a person gets in the world of Freak Show, the more morally corrupt they are. Dell, the strong man, has his own demons that eventually drive him to kill. Stanley, whose only freak-qualifier is his enormous penis, secretly arranges the deception, mutilation, and murder of the performers that he lives with. There seems to be a spectrum of physically normal to freak throughout the season, and the closer you get to being a perfect physical specimen, the worse you are inside. It’s an amplifier of the old cliché that beauty is only skin deep.
This isn’t to say that the freak performers are perfect. No community is full of exclusively nice people. But for the most part, they just wish to make their living and lead their lives as best as possible. They have a code, and they follow it. They only harm outsiders when those outsiders have hurt them. Freaks stand together; they support one another.
If I had to choose a role model between the complicated but mostly honorable namesakes of Freak Show or the vain, power hungry witches of Coven, I’d take the freaks in a second. These people had hearts. They loved and were loved. They had painful histories, yet they were seeking to overcome. In others like them they found power and strength rather than competition and threat. They accepted new members without recoiling at their deformities. They cooperated in their stage act, and that cooperation flowed into their off-stage relationships.
Aside from being a more compelling story than Coven, Freak Show had a message that I believe should speak louder to pagan ears. It speaks of nonconformity, but also clearly points out the dark spots in the mainstream’s shiny veneer of normalcy. It suggests that the “normal” population isn’t nearly as perfect as it appears to be and proposes that liberation from the drive to fit in might be an amazing gift instead of a terrible curse. Embrace your inner freak.