Shock value. The media hungers for the stories that make their audiences gasp. Ryan Murphy—creator of the acclaimed and oft talked about anthology series American Horror Story—knows a thing or two about not just what will shock audiences, but what will scare them out of sleeping at night. The popularity of the maturely themed program keeps rising season after shocking season, but with the premiere of the latest installment of the series Freak Show, some question if the content of the show has gone too far into the realm of exploitation with its featuring of a cast with disabilities under such a dark moniker. Despite the murmurs of inappropriate content, the show is still going strong with good reason: the man behind the mystique, Ryan Murphy, has a genuine, caring outlook on all of those involved in the show, especially the ones the public believes are being exploited.
The ingredients of success for the program were there from the beginning. A gothic themed, darkly humored, endlessly captivating program that exposes the quiet darkness that resides within common (and sometimes not so common) human beings. Its first season garnered endless praise and nominations, with the finale’s viewership ending the series as the biggest new television show of 2011. What followed the first season were two more installments of excellence, featuring a sacrilegious asylum in the 1960s and a female-empowered witch coven in modern day New Orleans. Fans speculated early on within the third season what the setting of the next season would be: in March of 2014, the infamous creator announced that the new season would be carnival themed. Of course, what is a carnival without colorful characters to match?
Murphy has been known to push all the forbidden buttons, so it was not a total surprise during the premiere of the newest season that many of the cast members were physically handicapped in some way in addition to most of the recurring cast members adopting personas with disabilities or disfigurements. Despite immediate cries of exploitation, the show’s founding father claims the new season is not about exploitation, but embracing marginalized communities. Murphy said in an interview with Buzzfeed prior to the new season’s premiere, “We’re writing for them. We’re giving them backstories and scenes that play on their own experiences because the writers interviewed all of them at length about their lives, and we’re putting their lives in the script.” Many have commented that what Murphy is aiming to do is not exploitation, but using a method of meta fiction to make his art imitate life. The theme of exploitation versus choice is one that pulses through every episode of the program, but is this theme clear to those who simply succumb to the tricks and gags of shock factor? To those, who perhaps like their ancestors living in the 1950s when sideshows were still around, gasp at the spectacle of the unusual?
Perhaps the point of American Horror Story, especially the current season, is to generate conversation about exploited communities. After all, Murphy is also the creator of the buzzy series Glee, which often features characters belonging to ostracized groups, as well as the mastermind behind the beautiful and acclaimed HBO film The Normal Heart, which explored the renegades speaking up during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Murphy knows what he is doing otherwise he would not have several series with highly successful seasons under his belt. Pushing the buttons is a skill he has just mastered. Yet some people are unable to separate the shock factor—an attribute that is commonplace not only to the media but also to nearly every genuinely decent horror movie—from characteristics of exploitation. In fact, Murphy narrowed his focus on real horror while researching for the new season: the treatment of sideshow workers when they were in the height of their popularity. In the aforementioned Buzzfeed interview, Murphy became extremely serious when discussing the trials many of the workers faced and commented, “Historically, the discrimination and hatred and murder and abuse and rape that was afflicted upon them because they were different — because they were born that way — is very painful and astounding.”