Season 4 of FX’s American Horror Story premiered October 8, 2014, with Freak Show. Set in 1950s Jupiter, Florida this season rethinks the truths behind post-war “normality” that still permeate society today. Frequently people reflect upon the 1950s with nostalgia or through the lens of the television set, with shows like Father Knows Best (1954-1963) and The Donna Reed Show (1958-1963). What they tend to see is the grey flannel suits, the Levittowns, and pearl-clad housewives who find fulfillment through vacuuming and raising children. Freak Show takes the images and prescriptive behaviors from the 1950s and recasts normality in the spirit of Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place (1956).
Freak Show exposes commonly shared ideas about normality and turns them upside down. To better understand the images of the status quo that AHS critiques, it is important to appreciate where they came from and why so many people bought into them. In the compelling book, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, Elaine Tyler May argued that much of the Cold War was an ideological war in which American superiority rested on the suburban home. May asserts that Americans who challenged the status quo threatened national security more than Soviet militarism and consequently faced intense scrutiny. She argues that many American families thus collectively combatted Communism by controlling their families (or their sphere of influence). By controlling parts of the suburban home (i.e. gender roles, parenting, shopping) the family could provide security in an insecure world.[i] In other words, there was an overemphasis on personal behavior and roles after WWII, evident in our recollections and reflections of the 1950s within popular culture. These prescribed behaviors are manifest in Juniper’s townspeople who exist outside of the freak show. More interestingly is AHS’s portrayal of the seemingly normal people who use the performative skin of normalcy to hide their freakishness.
AHS suggests that the real freaks conceal their aberrations by appearing normal on the outside. The show implies that the physical deformities which render the freaks unsightly are inconsequential compared to thoughts and behaviors of the townspeople. If anything the freaks’ inner qualities are closer to the morals prescribed by the word “normal.”[ii] Conversely, the beautiful people are often the ugliest and most freakish on the inside (i.e. Dandy).
Anna Creadick’s book, Perfectly Average: The Pursuit of Normality in Post War America, analyzes American culture from 1943-1963 and traces the word “normal” as it shifted from describing eugenically based scientific averages toward a prescription for performing societal ideals. Her investigation revealed several clear indications about American society’s use of the word (at the risk of sounding too much like a book review, I only highlight the points which reflect upon my discussion of AHS). First, normality is situational. Second, average is often abnormal. Third, normality serves as a substitute for morality (and is often performative). Finally, normality is impossible to achieve.[iii] Given these few indications from her book, I suggest that Freak Show illustrates the ways that normality is subjective and how those who are deemed visibly “normal” often repress their transgressions.
Freak Show exhibits the fluidity of normality through its main characters, particularly Dell and Dandy. Dell appears seemingly average on the outside but he explains that his parents considered him a freak for not having been born with the family’s lobster hands. He felt shamed for appearing physically different than those around him in his biological and freak show families. Dandy does not have any physical malformations as revealed in Episode 8 “Blood Bath,” where we view his upper-class, perfect body. While Dandy comes from a lineage of wealth and family reputation, it is evident throughout Freak Show that Dandy is anything other than typical.[iv] In addition to our ability as viewers to peer at his family skeletons, AHS reveals that Dandy is a sociopathic, manipulative, man-boy serial killer with some serious mommy issues. While able to move fluidly throughout society because of his cloak of normality (which includes physical and class indicators), Dandy is a clear sign that normality is more than meets the eye.[v]
Freak Show uses the townspeople of Jupiter, moreover, to evidence that abnormality is the statistical average. Those deemed part of the status quo evoke ugliness, rigidity, and deviance. This is exhibited throughout the season by the women at Jimmy’s Tupperware parties who seek sexual gratification outside committed monogamy and the people in the diner who pass judgement and protest the presence of freaks in their midst. [vi] The overt rejection of difference is offered several times in visceral reactions in the diner, in the toy store (when Twisty presents his toy), and as Paul tries to buy perfume for his girlfriend, Penny. The most egregious example of gruesome behavior occurs when Pepper’s sister frames Pepper for the murder of baby Lucas in order to free herself from the confines of motherhood.[vii] Society’s rejection of difference is countered by Elsa’s acceptance of her fellow freaks. As each freak was symbolically locked away by society, Elsa sought them out and built a heathy family which combatted the toxic “normal” families throughout this season of AHS.[viii]
The boundaries of normality are relentlessly protected by the townspeople of Jupiter. Much as Elaine Tyler May argued that controlling the sphere of influence is a matter of national pride and security, Penny’s father and Gloria Mott fight to keep up appearances. This is most evident in episode 7, “Test of Strength,” when Penny’s dad acts out his malicious vengeance on his daughter after he perceives she brought shame onto the family. Similarly, in episode 5, “Pink Cupcakes,” Gloria conceals the murder of Dora. Gloria and Penny’s father would rather mutilate and mask their family transgressions than risk being perceived outside the boundaries of acceptability in post-war America.
Peace only comes to those who do not conceal their abnormalities. The final episode, “Curtain Call,” echoes Anna Creadick’s basic interlinked truths that abnormality is the average and normality is unattainable. AHS shows that varying levels of abnormality exist everywhere and that no one meets the criteria for normal as it is prescribed. Once the characters accept this, the truth sets them free. The first step (much like a 12-step program) is admitting the problem. Almost like a priest in confessional, Edward Mordrake purges the freaks of their darkest moments in episodes 3 and 4. They admit their inner transgressions in a cathartic moment which sets them apart from the townspeople of Jupiter. Finally, after being offered a second chance at life by Mordrake, the freaks accept their physical and societal standing in order to survive the season. Once the Tattler twins accept their body, and Jimmy rejects his new hands, they are granted passage into self-actualization.[ix] The normative world once more reared its ugly head, though, when Elsa no longer met their rigid standards for inclusion. Through the acceptance of her freakishness, even Elsa found peace in the afterlife once she turned herself over to Mordrake.
In conclusion American Horror Story’s Freak Show simultaneously encourages viewers to reconsider normality as well as the societal addiction to characteristics prescribed as “normal,” all of which are, finally, unattainable. Primary and secondary characters evidenced the instability of the classification of normal and the lengths that some will go to in order to protect the sanctity awarded to what is an impossible national fiction. Freak Show suggests that we need a good 12-step program to break our addiction to the fabled category of normality. The final thriving characters admitted their problems, examined their past errors through a peer (Mordrake), found sanity, and ultimately earned a new life with a new code of behaviors.
[i] See Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1988).
[ii] For comprehensive definitions of normal see http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/normal and http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Normal. Multiple sources used the words usual, standard, conforming to describe normal. A few mention free from mental illness as indicative of normal however, Anna Creadick’s book reveals that quantitatively average means abnormal. She gave examples of how the approximately 80% of tested groups evidenced some level of mental illness (p. 7, 146); in addition she evidences through the Normman and Norma contests that not one American met the idealized “normal” measurements of the average body.
[iii] For further information about Anna Creadick’s book Perfectly Average: the Pursuit of Normality in Post War America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010), you may also visit http://muse.jhu.edu/books/9781613760147
[iv] For a horror film that similarly portrays and critiques the upper echelons of social order much like Dandy’s, see Society (1992).
[v] Dandy does mention on several occasions that he wants to be a performer and I suggest here that he truly is one by performing his privileged normality for so long.
[vi] Episode 1, “Monsters Among Us,” and episode 9, “Tupperware Party Massacre,” show the suburbanite women. Episode 2, “Massacres and Matinees,” shows the diner reactions to the freaks.
[vii] Episode 10, “Orphans.” Penny is clearly portrayed as the most innocent. She is severely punished for both physical deformity and the inability to conform to societal norms.
[viii] Pepper and the twins both came from locked facilities; Ima was locked in a fat farm.
[ix] Self-actualization is the highest and hardest to attain of Maslow’s pyramid needs.
While it is revealed in episode 6 that Desiree is not truly a hermaphrodite, she had to come to accept herself as female. In addition she proudly wore the demarcation of being physically dark skinned. I argue that the other freaks and families perished for hiding their true colors (Dell’s homosexuality, Gloria’s tireless repression of family skeletons, Paul’s refusal to tattoo his face, etc.).