Is American Horror Story simply an exercise in morbid curiosity or does it offer its viewers valuable insight about different life experiences? Fans and critics have grappled with this question for the last four seasons of the show. Whether you think the show has been successful in remedying these issues, there is no doubt in my mind that it has taken viewers' concerns into consideration with every new season. After four episodes, I am convinced that Freak Show may just be the best season of AHS to date because of its attention to detail when representing disabled characters.
While the show undoubtedly employs fantastic and outlandish plot lines, it is not solely concerned with ghosts, aliens, demonic possessions. and the like. AHS often addresses realistic concerns of our generation and the horrors of death, rape, physical and mental disability, depression, and suicide. The only question that remains is: has the show done these issues justice? Unfortunately, the answer is not always yes, but I believe that it is trying to send an accessible message about disability and difference to a diverse American audience (in a world where these stigmas are still prevalent).
For one, the show features several cast members with real physical disabilities. Mat Fraser, who plays “Paul the illustrated seal,” was born with phocomelia, a rare condition that results in the malformation of limbs. Fraser is a musician, actor, and activist who has criticized the film industry for employing able-bodied actors to portray disabled characters. Fraser remarked “that the presence of people with disabilities (apart from Peter Dinklage) on highly rated shows is minuscule; the work by Fraser and others on AHS may serve as a jumping off point for the next phase of discussion and inclusion.”
You can hear more about Fraser's experiences in the video below:
And, although not all the actors on AHS Freak Show are disabled, their character's disability is based off real cases in medical history.
While many viewers have expressed concerns about the show exploiting its disabled characters, the two-part special “Edward Mordrake” takes a look at each character's painful history, which humanizes each character's individual experience. These scenes invite viewers to empathize with these “freaks.” Author Eric Wilson recently released the book Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, which attempts to pinpoint humanity's attraction to the morbid. In the end, Wilson finds that this curiosity can be a positive thing:
“Wilson's conversations with psychologists lead him to another, more uplifting conclusion: that “our attraction to the macabre is, on some level, a desire to experience someone else's suffering.” We yearn to empathize – a yearning that is, incidentally, perfectly compatible with the evolutionary argument, since empathy helps us forge close bonds, which are essential for survival.”
Prior to Edward Mordrake's arrival, we (the viewers) were simply voyeurs. Just like the citizens of Jupiter, we remained separate from people in the freak show, free to make judgements about the characters without being completely invested in their stories or development. When Mordrake demands each character tell him the most tragic moments of their lives, our relationship to these characters becomes more intimate. Their pain and struggles humanize them and we are asked to sympathize with their pain. Ultimately, there is a hope that once we see their humanity, we will change our perception just like Jupiter's citizens do at the conclusion of “Edward Mordrake pt. II.” Instead of turning from the freaks they once despised so much, they come to the arms open, shaking hands, touching shoulders, and fostering real human connection. We are implicated here. It is no longer ethical for us to remain voyeurs in the world of the freak show because we've become emotionally attached to these characters and their pain.
Only time will tell if AHS Freak Show will be successful in the end. After all, we are hardly half way through season four. I can only hope they continue to explore marginalized voices and experiences in a way that does not do them a disservice. Is it perfect? Perhaps not, but it's certainly a start.
Also, I hope they continue to include amazing cover songs like this: