Before American Horror Story: Freak Show, there was ‘Freaks’
American Horror Story has been one of the most unexpected success stories in recent horror history. It’s weird, dark and sometimes shocking, yet it’s achieved mainstream success all over the world – unusual for a show branded as horror. With each season taking place in an entirely new setting, we have been treated to a range of eerie and fantastically designed sets – not least the carnival created in the latest season Freak Show. This season pays extended homage to Todd Brownings classic, and extremely controversial horror movie Freaks, released in 1932 and subject to numerous cuts and bans. The plot centres on a beautiful trapeze artist who manipulates and uses her dwarf husband for money – aided by her lover The Strongman, and the reaction of the sideshow’s ‘freaks’ when they uncover her betrayal.
As well as several scenes inspired by the film, American Horror Story: Freak Show creates many characters influenced by those in Freaks. But did you know that most of the actors in the original film were real sideshow performers of the era? We’re going to take a look at the links between the characters in American Horror Story, Freaks, and the real life individuals who inspired both works. We should point out that this article does contain spoilers.
Pepper is an interesting character, being the first to hint at a connection between the anthology-like seasons of the show. A microcephalic performer, Pepper was rescued from an orphanage and brought to the Freak Show by it’s owner, who she comes to look upon as a mother figure.
Schlitzie was a real life circus performer who suffered from the neuro developmental disorder Microcephaly. From 1920, Schlitzie performed in sideshows, billed as ‘The Last of the Aztecs’. During his time in the Tom Mix Circus in 1935 he met George Surtees, a chimpanzee trainer who adopted Schlitzie and became his legal guardian. Schlitzie was most famous however for playing himself in Freaks. When he passed away aged seventy, a fan collection was set up to buy him a commemorative headstone in Rowland Heights, LA.
Bette and Dot Tattler are dicephalic parapagus conjoined twins, meaning that their bodies comprise of a single torso with one pair of arms, one pair of legs, but two distinct heads and necks. The performance of both twins is achieved using CGI to merge Paulson’s dual performances together. According to Ryan Murphy, every scene Paulson has to shoot takes almost twelve hours, compared to a regular scene which Murphy says takes five.
Like Bette and Dot, the Hilton sisters also found fame performing. Talented singers and musicians, the conjoined sisters performed in sideshow, vaudeville and American burlesque acts throughout their career. Following an abusive childhood, the sisters sued their caretakers for the fortune they had generated. They had turbulent lives including short marriages, abandonment by their manager and exploitation from their guardians. The sisters appeared in Freaks, as well as several other films, and their story is strongly alluded to in the latest season of American Horror Story. A facinating documentary on the lives of the sisters, Bound By Flesh, is available on Netflix.
Ethel Darling, portrayed by horror legend Kathy Bates is the second-in-command of sorts at the Freak Show. Billed as The Bearded Lady, Ethel is depicted as a mothering figure who’s death devastates the sideshow. The actress has won an Emmy for her role in the previous season of the show – Coven.
Jane Barnell, who used the stage name ‘Lady Olga’, also appeared in Browning’s Freaks. She was sold by her mother due to her unusual appearance as a young child and later met a circus strongman who invited her to join John Robinson’s Circus. Lady Olga toured for a time with a number of circuses, including the Ringling Brothers circus, and later joined Hubert’s Museum in Times Square, New York. During her lifetime she worked for more than 25 circuses earning between $20 and $100 per week. She was one of the few actors to appear in Freaks to publicly criticise the film, quoted as saying it was “an insult to all freaks everywhere.”.
Elsa’s assistant, manicurist and ‘cuddle toy’, Ma Petite is played by Jyoti Kisange Amge, the smallest woman in the world. Sold to the sold to the sideshow in exchange for Dr. Pepper, her act involves playing a tiny violin. Amge’s height of 62.8 cm (2 ft 0.6 in) is due to a condition called achondroplasia. Before becoming an actress, she had been the subject of several documentaries and appeared on the Indian edition of Big Brother.
Freaks featured two characters with dwarfism, Hans being the subject of the central character’s deception. Harry Earles who played Hans had previously appeared in a horror/thriller film The Unholy Three which was also directed by Todd Browning and starred horror legend Lon Chaney. Earles was cast alongside his real-life sister Daisy in Freaks. The two were among four of seven children affected by the condition, and become known as ‘The Doll Family’ as each sibling became involved in the acting profession. Harry Earles is credited with bringing the short story upon which Freaks was based to the attention of Browning.
Meep, named for the only word he is able to say and frequently dressed in a bird costume, is famed in the Freak Show for his ability to bite the heads from small animals. Framed for murder, he is beaten to death by prison inmates in one of the series’ most heartbreaking scenes. Tragically, Benjamin Woolf who portrayed Meep died on February 23, 2015 following a car accident.
Minnie Woolsey became known in the side show circuits as Koo-Koo The Bird Girl. Very little is known about her life prior to appearing in Freaks, but it is thought she was rescued from an asylum. She suffered from a rare congenital growth skeletal disorder called Virchow-Seckel syndrome, which caused her unusual appearance. According to records, she was a dedicated Freak Show performer as late as the 1960s at Coney Island, when she would have been in her late eighties. Woolsey shared her role in Freaks with another actress in for some scenes, but appears dancing in many scenes from the film.
Paul The Illustrated Seal is a drummer and performer in the Freak Show. Born with phocomelia, a rare congenital malformation of the limbs and angered at the discrimination he faced, Paul tattooed his entire body with the exception of his face. Paul is portrayed by actor, writer and disability activist Mat Fraser. Currently, he is the creator and main performer in a new play called Thalidomide!! A Musical as well as working with the BBC on a podcast discussing issues faced by disabled people. He is also an accomplished martial artist, cage fighter, and has performed at the UK Olympic opening ceremony.
Although Paul’s character does not appear to be directly based on source material from Freaks, it does have soem interesting links to a real Freak Show performer. Mat Fraser, who plays Paul, has previously studied the life of Stanislaus Berent known as Sealo the Seal Boy. The play Sealboy: Freak premiered in 2001 and was showcased at the Bodies of Work disability arts festival in 2005, which was held in Chicago. It tells the story of both Berent and a contemporary actor loosely based on Fraser, who share the same condition. In a side show career which lastet over fifty years, Sealo was able to use a razor and saw as part of his act despite the disability which affected his arms.
Legless Suzy is a fairly minor character in the series, who does however have a dark past. Her legs were removed as a child due to a rare disease, and she was abandoned by her parents. As a beggar on the streets, she grew jealous of another beggar she saw dancing and stabbed his leg – ultimately severing an artery and murdering him. Suzy is played by actress Rose Siggins, who was born with sacral agenesis, a disease in which all or part of the lower section of the spinal column has failed to form.
Known as the ‘King of the Freak’ real life side show performer Johnny Eck suffered from the same condition as Rose Siggins. His performance in Freaks has become one of the most famous scenes from the film. Eck was able to walk on his hands before his twin brother was able to stand on his feet, and was protected by school friends who blacked out the windows to protect him from stares and fought for the honour to help him up the stairs. His extraordinary career included acting, painting, magic acts, model making, Punch and Judy Shows, and arcade ownership. Famously, when asked if he wished he had legs, he replied, “Why would I want those? Then I’d have pants to press.”