American Horror Story: Freak Show |

TV | American Horror Story

American Horror Story: Freak Show

Ryan Murphy's latest wild installment ups the crazy with a showstopping cavalcade of the gloriously grotesque

Jessica Lange in American Horror Story: Freak Show (Michele K. Short/FX)

First came a teenage ghost with a fondness for rubber fetish gear. Then there was a serial killer who made a mask out of his victims’ skin. And last year, we met a centuries-old minotaur kept alive by his voodoo-priestess lover. It’s fair to say that in its three previous seasons, FX’s American Horror Story has never been afraid to push the limits in terms of, shall we say, unique characters. But that’s all been a tame opening act for season 4’s Freak Show, a showstopping cavalcade of the gloriously grotesque. (No, really: One of the main females has three breasts.) ”I think this year without a doubt will be my favorite,” says star Jessica Lange. ”Just the richness of it and the time and the place and the characters, it will far surpass anything we’ve done before.”

And that’s saying something. AHS has amassed a whopping 51 Emmy nominations. The last installment, Coven, delivered the series’ highest ratings yet, averaging more than 7 million viewers. One of the vital ingredients in AHS’ magic potion is the fact that the series reboots itself each year with an entirely fresh plot for the same group of actors, including Lange and Sarah Paulson. This time, AHS’ maestros Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk turn their focus to a troupe of misfit performers—led by former German cabaret star Elsa Mars (Emmy winner Lange)—who arrive in the small town of Jupiter, Fla. It’s a subject that Lange actually brought to Murphy a year ago. ”I’ve always been fascinated by a community of people living like gypsies, on the road and traveling from place to place,” says the actress. ”And in this case, heightened to the degree that they’re all extremely special.” While Lange initially suggested the Dust Bowl era, Murphy liked the time frame of the ’50s. ”The carny world really ended for the most part when television began,” explains the executive producer. ”So one freak show replaced another.”

Populating this particular circus are conjoined twins Bette and Dot (Paulson), the latest recruits to a roster that includes bearded lady Ethel (Kathy Bates) and her son, Jimmy (Evan Peters), born with lobsterlike hands. Adding more drama to the tents is the arrival of Ethel’s ex-husband and Jimmy’s father, Dell Toledo (Michael Chiklis), a strongman who’s on the run from the law. ”Jimmy is the big man on campus and is the male leader of the group until Dell comes and they begin to battle for power under Elsa,” says Murphy. Still wondering about the tri-breasted female? That would be Dell’s new wife, Desiree DuPree, played by Angela Bassett. The role requires Bassett to wear a prosthetic that covers her entire chest. ”Angela likes to flash them,” jokes Paulson. ”She’s like, ‘Look at my three boobs!”’ (Not all of the roles rely on special effects, however: Murphy cast the two-foot-tall Jyoti Amge, named by Guinness as the world’s shortest woman.)

But it’s Paulson, one of the few stars to appear in every season of AHS, who has the most physically and mentally demanding role on Freak Show: playing Bette and Dot, two very different women sharing a single body. ”It’s not as simple as nice and evil,” says Paulson. ”It’s more complicated, in true Ryan Murphy style.” The creation of the twins requires a mixture of camera tricks, CGI, and prosthetics. ”It is the most challenging so far,” says Paulson of the dual role. ”I have anxiety because I just want people to believe it and forget that they’re watching something that isn’t real.”

That is, if they aren’t too busy covering their eyes in fear from the season’s villain, a nasty fella (and murderer) named Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch), who has retired in Jupiter and is not exactly thrilled by the arrival of the freak show. ”He’s out to make their lives a living hell,” explains Murphy. ”He’s wearing a mask on the lower part of his face, and there comes a point in the season where he takes the mask off. When you see what’s under, you will faint in terror.”

Other Coven alums back for more include Emma Roberts and Denis O’Hare as a pair of con artists, as well as Frances Conroy as a wealthy woman whose son (Finn Wittrock) wants to join the freak show. ”He relates to them,” says Murphy. ”He feels like a freak inside even though he’s a beautiful man.” Perhaps the biggest surprise is the return of Pepper (Naomi Grossman), a fan favorite from Asylum who plays a show performer. It’s the first time AHS has carried over a character from a previous season, which makes Freak Show something like a prequel (the events of Asylum take place 10 years later). ”We thought about it long and hard, and we decided that it was interesting to do,” says Murphy. ”This is sort of like what happened to Pepper before she went to the asylum.”

There will, of course, be the hallmarks fans have come to expect from AHS, including time jumps (look for flashbacks to Elsa’s cabaret days in 1930s Germany, plus a peek at young Ethel) and a two-part Halloween episode, this one featuring Wes Bentley (The Hunger Games) as a character named Edward Mordrake. ”He is a very famous horror myth,” explains Murphy. ”It was a man with two faces. A normal face and then a face on the back of his head that would whisper evil things and force the forward-facing entity to commit horrible crimes.”

All involved say the tone this year hews closer to the darkness and poignancy of Asylum than to the high gloss of Coven. ”The stories are so rich and complicated,” says Paulson. ”It’s really about this idea of being a forgotten soul that’s just been cast aside in the world. Everybody feels like that at some point in their lives.”

Production only began on Freak Show in mid-July, but Murphy has already started plotting season 5. Nothing is certain, although we know Lange is sticking to her announcement that she won’t be back for another year. (”I haven’t reconsidered,” says the actress.) Which means Murphy will need an infusion of fresh star power for the show. After nabbing Stevie Nicks for Coven and Patti LaBelle for Freak Show, he’s still got a few superstars in mind for the future. Jokes Murphy, ”Diana Ross, your call is coming!”