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Meet the Freaks Of 'American Horror Story'

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Tonight (Oct. 8), the fourth season of FX’s American Horror StoryFreak Show—delves into the world of carnivals, sideshows and anomalies of nature. After catching a sneak peek of the first episode (at a live Truffl freak show on Sunday at the Ebell Theater), it’s plain to see that show creator Ryan Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk are borrowing bits from sordid carny (and Hollywood) history. And that’s a good thing because true-life can be just as terrifying as fiction.

American Horror Story’s latest chapter, “Monsters Among Us,” opens in the quiet town of Jupiter, Florida, located between Miami and Orlando. It’s 1952, and interest in viewing human oddities, disabilities and deformities for entertainment is on the wane (this is before reality TV revived the interest in freaks). A German carnival ringleader / manager Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) is determined that her troupe survive: The show must go on, even if Jupiter doesn’t want Elsa or her kind around.

Lange channels her best Marlene Dietrich for the role, vamping (and even singing) her way through the first episode. The older Dietrich rode the cabaret circuit for nearly two decades until the 1970s, never fully regaining her pre-WWII film popularity. Likewise, Elsa hopes that the carnival life will lead to her “discovery,” though she harbors a little secret that may stand in the way of her quest for fame.

Other characters introduced during the premiere episode also bear a strong resemblance to characters from history. Evan Peters plays Jimmy Darling, whose deformed, claw-like hands are reminiscent of the infamous “Lobster Boy,” Grady Stiles Jr. Brought into the carnival life by his father at an early age, Stiles Jr. inherited the same congenital condition, ectrodactyly, in which the cleft digits on the hands and/or feet, resemble a lobster claw.

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From all news accounts, Stiles Jr. was an abusive drunk, who murdered his daughter’s fiance the night before their wedding. In this first AHS episode, Darling shows he has violent tendencies, too. Now we’re not sure where Peters’ character will end up, but karma took care of Stiles Jr.: He was killed by a hitman in 1992, hired by his own wife and stepson.

Other Freak Show residents include Dot and Bette Tattler (played by Sarah Paulson), conjoined twins at the neck that Elsa hopes will save the carnival. For reasons we don’t want to spoil, the twins’ owe their lives to Elsa, and we hope that in future episodes their talents aren’t as exploited as Daisy and Violet Hilton’s. The twins, conjoined at the butt, were sold off as children to a woman who took all the money they made touring the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s.

Jimmy Darling’s mother, Ethel, plays the carnival’s bearded lady (Kathy Bates). Probably an amalgam of many follically challenged circus women, Ethel displays a blind devotion to Elsa. (She also speaks with a curious accent that we can’t exactly place—a Pennsylvania Dutch accent mixed with an Irish brogue, perhaps?)

if you suffer from coulrophobia—the fear of clowns—then be warned that AHSFS’s Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch) will haunt your nightmares and is hands-down the scariest part of the premiere. Twisty is sick from the premiere’s get-go, rivaling real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy (whose alter ego was Pogo the Clown) in brutality. Here’s a taste from AHSFS, though it’s not Twisty in the teaser video.

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Other characters are introduced in later episodes this season, so it’ll be interesting to see if Murphy and Falchuk borrow more from history’s seedier side to scare its viewers this season.

American Horror Story: Freak Show premieres on Wednesday, Oct. 8 on FX at 10 pm.