‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’: A background on sideshows

fiona goode jessica lange
Jessica Lange returns in season four of “American Horror Story.” She played Fiona Goode in season three.
Credit: FX

“American Horror Story” fans found out on Tuesday that season four of the spine-chilling show will be called “American Horror Story: Freak Show.” Jessica Lange will play a German expat running one of the last American freak shows in Jupiter, Fla. in the 1950s, reports Entertainment Weekly. Her troupe will include characters played by Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Angela Bassett and Frances Conroy. Denis O’Hare and Emma Roberts may also make comebacks.


The details are hush hush, but “American Horror Story” tends to borrow plots and characters from real people and events in history. We talked to Robert Bogdan, distinguished professor emeritus at Syracuse University and author of “Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit” about the most famous freaks of the time and other plotlines we may see on the show.

1. On Jupiter, Fla.: As far as Bogdan knows, there were no permanent sideshows in Jupiter in the 1950s. However, Gibsonton, Fla., which is about three hours from Jupiter, was a hotspot for “unusuals.” “That’s where a lot of circus people and carnival people spent the winter,” Bogdan explains. “There was a disproportionate number of people who were in sideshows or freak shows there. Some of them ran motels and fishing stores so it’s kind of a famous area for carny and circus people in Florida.”

2. On Jessica Lange as a sideshow manager: Bogdan says the choice to have Lange play a sideshow manager is unusual because almost all of them were men. Moreover, he has never come across a female German expat manager in his research.

3. On the “freaks”: During the 1950s, there were two types of freaks: “born freaks” and “self-made freaks,” according to Bogdan. “There were novelty acts like sword swallowers and putting pins through your arms – things like that,” he says. “‘Self-made freaks’ were tattooed people and people who had done things to make their bodies unusual. And ‘born freaks’ were people with physical anomalies.”

We saw Elizabeth Short (the Black Dahlia) in season one of “American Horror Story” and in season three, we saw historical New Orleans figures, like Marie Laveau, Madame Marie Delphine LaLaurie and the Axeman. Who might we see in season four? Bogdan gave us the names of a few of the most famous “freaks” of the time.

Sideshow Alive: The Monkey Girl from Big Chief Studio on Vimeo.

Percilla the Monkey Girl: Percilla Roman was a woman who had a disorder that made her abnormally hairy. “They’d bill her as ‘half beast, half human,’” says Bogdan. Roman was married to the Alligator Man, Emmitt Bejano, who had a skin condition that made him look like he had scales. You can watch more about their love story above.

Jeanie Tomaini: Tomaini was known as the “half girl” or the “legless wonder.” Tomaini was born without legs and had twisted arms. Like Roman, she also married a fellow “freak.” She could do flips and other stunts – legless people were not an uncommon sight at sideshows in general. Tomaini married Al Tomaini, a giant. The pair traveled and performed together.

Sealo: Stanislaus “Stanley” Berent, also known as Sealo or the Seal Boy, was born with a birth defect that left his arms like short flippers. He is also known for suing the state of Florida for trying to ban freak shows.

Mel Burkhart: Burkhart was a double-jointed wonder who could contort his body and face in addition to doing things like driving nails into his own head.

4. On the last freak shows in the country: Bogdan says that it’s true freak shows were in decline around this time, though there were still many of them traveling around the country, including one attached to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and Ward Hall’s sideshow, which still operates to this day as the World of Wonders Sideshow. The sideshow claims on its Facebook page that it is the country’s last traveling sideshow.

Bogdan says sideshows were harder to find in the 1950s because it was becoming politically incorrect to gawk and marvel at disabled people. “One of the reasons they declined is that at least with the ‘born freaks,’ the medical profession took over and these people became labeled as sick,” he says. “They were defined as being freaks before but then became cases to be looked at through a professional lens, not as a public display. Gradually, it became less favorable to see them.” Bogdan remembers when he went to see the Ringling Bros. in the 1950s at Madison Square Garden, where his mother stopped him from seeing the freak show. “It was in the basement and my mother told me, ‘Don’t go in there,’” he says. “By then it was seen as really seedy. And then [Ringling Bros.] dropped it.”

What kind of freaks do you think cast members will play? We have our money on Angela Bassett as a snake charmer – we already saw her do that on season three, after all – and Kathy Bates as a bearded lady. And for some reason, we can imagine Emma Roberts as the Monkey Girl. What do you think?
Follow Andrea Park on Twitter: @andreapark



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
National

California passes 'yes-means-yes' campus sexual assault bill

Californian lawmakers passed a law on Thursday requiring universities to adopt "affirmative consent" language in their definitions of consensual sex, part of a nationwide drive to curb sexual assault on…

National

Syrian refugees top 3 million, half of all…

By Stephanie NebehayGENEVA (Reuters) - Three million Syrian refugees will have registered in neighboring countries as of Friday, but many remain trapped by the advance…

International

North Korean leader's money manager defects in Russia:…

A senior North Korean banking official who managed money for leader Kim Jong Un has defected in Russia and was seeking asylum in a third country, a South Korean newspaper…

Local

MAP: New York City Street Closures August 29,…

The Department of Transportation and NYPD said there may be residual delays near all of the street closures on August 29, 31 and 31. Several streets and avenues will be…

Going Out

'Friends' coffeehouse Central Perk coming to NYC —…

"Friends" is coming back for a one-off special: "The One with the Free Coffee." Warner Bros. is bringing a pop-up replica of Central Perk, the…

Movies

Interview: 'As Above, So Below' directors: 5 ways…

The fraternal directors of the found footage horror "As Above, So Below" dish on the best ways to frighten the bejesus out of audiences.

Movies

Criterion's new Jacques Demy box mixes the light…

Jacques Demy, the most effervescent of French New Wave filmmakers, gets a Criterion box all to himself, with classics like "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg."

Entertainment

Comedian Joan Rivers, 81, rushed to New York…

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Acerbic comedian and fashion critic Joan Rivers was rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York on Thursday after she reportedly…

NFL

3 things we learned in the Giants preseason…

The final score didn’t matter — a 16-13 win by the Giants — but it would’ve been nice to finally see Big Blue’s new-look offense get on track.

NFL

NFL Power Rankings: Seahawks, Broncos, Patriots, 49ers start…

NFL Power Rankings: Seahawks, Broncos, Patriots start at top

U.S. Soccer

5 facts about new England captain Wayne Rooney

Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney was named as the new England captain by coach Roy Hodgson on Thursday.

NFL

Jets vs. Eagles: 3 things to watch

A win on Thursday night at the Eagles would give the Jets a 3-1 record and just their second winning preseason under head coach Rex Ryan.

Style

Trend: White hot on the 2014 Emmy's red…

White was one of the big trends on the Emmy's red carpet.

Food

Recipe: Samuel Adams beer-marinated grilled shrimp

Summer calls for two things: a cold beer and light food. Sam Adams' Latitude 48 IPA fairly bursts with citrus notes, making it an ideal marinade…

Wellbeing

4 healthy ingredient swaps to make your meals…

When it comes to eating well, everyone knows they could be doing better. But cooking in an apartment on a busy schedule is a recipe…

Wellbeing

Heart trumps brain when it comes to movies…

When you need a good cry, do you reach for the movie that’s “based on a true story”? Science says you’re giving your brain far…