American Horror Story Freak Show: The True Story That Inspired Season 4
Between crazy clowns and sideshow freaks, American Horror Story: Freak Show turns to real-life circus performers and serial killers for inspiration.
Like all seasons of this horror anthology, American Horror Story: Freak Show blends supernatural elements with real-life stories to create a uncannily familiar setting.
American Horror Story: Freak Show focuses on a band of “freaks” working at a 1950s circus in Jupiter, Florida. The fourth season in the show, it contrasts its more muted, serious predecessors with bright costuming, anachronistic musical numbers, and a colorful setting. According to Jessica Lange, who played ringleader Elsa Mars, Freak Show was her favorite season to work on. All of Murphy’s seasons tend to differ from each other, but tonally and stylistically, Freak Show stands out.
Freak Show combines urban legends, serial killers, and circuses to create a storyline that is both electric and eerie. From circus freaks based on real-life performers to killer clowns with a chilling backstory, the fourth season of American Horror Story takes several cues from true stories and historical figures.
American Horror Story Freak Show: The True Story Behind The Circus Setting
Circuses have a long history in the United States, from P.T. Barnum’s “Greatest Show On Earth” to the more contemporary Cirque du Soleil. Like in the show, circuses in the 1950s struggled to compete against the allure of radio, television, and movies, scrambling to constantly up the ante. Sideshow performers, “freaks” like the main characters, have been a circus staple throughout history. Some of the show’s characters are based on real people, like Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters) with Grady “Lobster Boy” Stiles Jr., and Paul “the Illustrated Seal” (Mat Fraser) with Stanley “Sealo” Berent. Other characters are not specific historical figures, but common archetypes that would have appeared in most circuses such as bearded ladies and strong men.
American Horror Story Freak Show: The True Story Behind Twisty The Clown
Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch) is one of the show’s most terrifying figures: a murderous clown with a killer smile. To audiences’ dismay, Twisty has a real-life basis. Although the character angered clowns for its less-than-generous portrayal of clowns, it is based on true-to-life serial killer, John Wayne Gacy Jr. Between 1972 and 1978, Gacy murdered 33 young boys. His work as “Pogo the Clown” combined with his violent tendencies earned him the moniker “The Killer Clown”.
American Horror Story Freak Show: The True Story Behind Dandy Mott
Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock), with his preppy clothes and wealthy background, is a character very much grounded in the 1950s. This stereotypical aristocrat commits many murders that are direct representations of his era; both Avon salesladies and Tupperware parties are staples of 1950s female independence. Meanwhile, his implied violence towards his neighbor’s cat falls in line with the tendencies of actual serial killers such as Son of Sam, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Ted Bundy, all of whom harmed animals first.
Dandy is also, arguably, coded queer. He responds, “I want to be an actor” when his mother insists he meet a nice girl, and uses an implied sexual encounter to lure a male murder victim. A character clearly uncomfortably in his own skin, this highlights his era-appropriate self-hating tendencies. His murder of a potential queer lover is evocative of Paul Bateson, a gay man from 1970s Brooklyn whose character also makes an appearance in Netflix’s Mindhunter, a show about documenting serial killers. Though Bateson was convicted of one “only” count of murder, at one point he was suspected of killing up to six gay men.
American Horror Story Freak Show: The True Story Behind Elsa Mars
Elsa Mars, in part, represents a tragic history of prostitutes serving as the primary targets for lethal or near-lethal violence. Her beginnings in 1930s Germany are inspired by the same events that inspired cult classic Cabaret. Weimar culture between World War I and II provided a liberal hub of music, art, film, and philosophy, with an open-mindedness that attracted sex workers and queer people alike. Mars, like many other characters in American Horror Story: Freak Show is based not on a specific person from this era, but on a general reality, as the show takes the source material and adds its own unique twist.