A Freak in American Horror Story: Asylum

A5xx3zmCAAEGt13-4166492777267134314In the TV Show American Horror Story, many forms of monstrosity are present within the three different seasons. However, more specifically the second season, Asylum, contains a character named Pepper, who can be classified in the traditional form as a freak. Pepper has the disease microcephaly, which also appears in Tod Browning’s classic film, Freaks. Microcephaly occurs when a person’s head is significantly smaller than normal (Opitz, Holt). In fact, through a study written on people with microcephaly who were performers, it is said that, “people with neurologic disorders were displayed as wild and juvenile and thus, joined a series of hoaxes of the American sideshow” (Mateen, Boes). The connection between the Freaks and Asylum is immediately seen when Pepper gives Lana a rose, “as though she’s come directly from that forest scene at the beginning of Browning’s movie, when the circus ‘freaks’ dance and play” (Smith). When Browning’s film was first released, it was controversial because of the way that the so-called ‘freaks’ were portrayed, even for the 1930s. Critics of the film say that people were exploited because of their disabilities (Mcroy, Crucianelli). In this same way, it can be seen that Pepper is exploited within the context of the show. In fact, later during the season, when Pepper is given the ability to talk, she tells her tale of how she came to be at Briarcliff, the asylum. She states that she was accused of murdering and mutilating her nephew. This is seen as related to freakery because the only reason Pepper is accused of the crime is because of her deviation from normality. She states, “he took one look at the shape of my head and I was locked up for good. That’s how it works for us freaks. We get blamed for everything,” (American Horror Story). While Pepper is just a character, this places an emphasis on looking at freaks, who are generally people with disabilities, and how they are depicted in a negative light. This is seen by the way the camera always looks down onto Pepper, from a high angle, which is also seen in Freaks. This technique is meant to “foreground or exaggerate the distinguishing peculiarity that was thought to make them objects of repulsion, of social stigma, and of fascination” (Studlar 220). This is accomplished with Pepper’s character by portraying her as even lesser than many of the other patients, who have actually committed heinous crimes, because of her disability. However, it is interesting to note how her presence changes once she is given the ability of intelligence, which also suggests that people with Microcephaly are useless, since no regarded Pepper as anything until she was able to express herself clearly. Overall, Pepper is defined as a freak within American Horror Story Asylum, because of her affliction and how it has been portrayed in past film and literature.

Pepper’s character relates to freakery as a whole in her direction away from heteronormality. As a whole, her disease makes her different than healthy people; therefore, this defines her freakery. As the season progresses, it is interesting how her character becomes less ‘freaky’ in the sense as defined before, through her transformation by the aliens. It was almost as if her real thoughts were trapped, and could only be released by the aliens. In this way, it gives her normality since she is able to clearly express her thoughts.

Works Cited

Mcroy, J. and Crucianelli, G. (2009), “I Panic the World”: Benevolent Exploitation in Tod Browning’s Freaks and Harmony Korine’s Gummo. The Journal of Popular Culture, 42 (257–272). doi: 10.1111/j.1540-5931.2009.00678.x/

Mateen, Farrah J. and Boes, Christopher J. “‘Pinheads’ The Exhibition of Neurologic Disorders at ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’” Neurology 75 (November 30 2010): 2028-2032.

Opitz, J. M., and M. C. Holt. 1990. Microcephaly: general considerations aids to nosology. J. Craniofacial Genet. Dev. Biol. 10:175-204.

Studlar, Gaylyn. This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age. New York: Columbia UP, 1996. Print.


2 responses to “A Freak in American Horror Story: Asylum

  1. Great post! In relating American Horror Story’s Pepper to Browning’s Freaks, you’ve brought up some interesting points about the relationship between freakery and performance/spectacle.

  2. I really enjoyed your post, and how you followed Pepper’s progression through the show (and her freakery transformation).Your connection with Pepper and Tod Browning’s characters playing in the woods, depicts Pepper’s innocence before even stating that she was falsely accused. I like how you compared Pepper to the other patients; the only reason she was at the asylum was not at all her fault, it was her genetic makeup, while others committed crimes to be placed in the same position as her.

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