When American Horror Story: Freak Show aired last year, I will admit I was up to my horror fan eyeballs with other projects. I’d just finished the Coven season and adored it, but Freak Show I knew I’d have to wait on. Shortly after the air date, I began to hear the same refrain over and over: “this season is just bad.” After Netflix posted Freak Show a few weeks back, I began to sit down and watch it for myself.
In the setting of a Freak Show stationed outside of Jupiter, Florida, the former victim of a torture porno attempts to become a star of the stage and screen. A set of conjoined twins kills their mother and then hide out in their home before being taken by a local hospital. The “lobster boy” sexually pleasures the local women of the town while their husbands aren’t home. While they are labeled “Freaks” the real horror of the show comes from the “normal” folks in town. Within 7 episodes, we watch as a strong man brutally murders the smallest woman alive. We see a young man in his twenties attempt to saw a woman in half, before returning home and slaughtering their maid. His mother quickly covers up the crime with a new flowerbed, letting “Dandy” know that every wealthy family has at least one psychopath. A father has his daughter’s face tattooed and splits her tongue when she threatens to run away from home. We also witness the horrific flashbacks of Elsa herself, as she relives the snuff film that cost her legs and almost her life. A clown blows away half his face with a riffle after being accused of molesting children, and then begins to kill. I made it 7 episodes before I had to turn the show off and walk away. Anymore than that and I likely would have needed more therapy than I probably already need.
It’s not that American Horror Story: Freak Show was bad, per se. The writing was still creatively wicked and the general construction of comics, special effects and scenery superb. It was the fact that the most horrific part of the show were not the “monsters,” but the human beings. A dad who forks his own daughter’s tongue while she is unconscious and unable to fight back? A woman who had her legs amputated and was left for dead in Germany? It’s like one act of human cruelty after another with no supernatural aspects to confuse motives. There’s no hiding because ghosts and zombie, the mythical Axe man or a demon. We were face to face with the most messed up parts of our species. Sure, we had like one Halloween episode with a ghostly guy who comes to take away one of the “freaks,” but with their experiences I, like the bearded lady, would have volunteered to go with him!
In shows like the WB’s popular Supernatural, or even last season of FX’s American Horror Story: Coven, a good deal of the big bad is covered up with humor or a supernatural force. It’s easier to handle the wickedness of humanity with the excuse “the devil made me do it” or even a joke. Coven had voodoo, the undead and witchcraft. Asylum had demonic possession and someone who may or may not have been a Nazi. Murder House had a set of spirits in a house that seemed to only exist to murder and trap its occupants. What did Freak Show have? People struggling to make a living despite being hunted down like animals and commodities.
So no, American Horror Story: Freak Show wasn’t bad; it was overwhelming to a place where David Bowie and Nirvana songs couldn’t pull us back from the brink.