‘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


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