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The Real Sideshow Performers that Inspired “American Horror Story: Freak Show”

The tv show “American Horror Story” grabbed our attention, as well as that of anyone interested in sideshow attractions, with their latest hit season “Freak Show”, that follows the travails of a failing traveling circus and its performers. Despite some amount of grousing from clowns, who weren’t pleased by the portrayal of yet another scary clown on the show (sorry dudes, clowns are freaky), overall this season has hit a high-mark for the show according to many fans. But how many of the show’s ‘freaks’ were close to reality? More than you’d think.

The show’s very creepy ghost of Edward Mordrake, played by Wes Bentley, was based on a real guy (arguably). The real Edward, or at least the apocryphal tale relating to him, suffered from a second face on the back of his head which he claimed whispered horrible things to him at night, and led to him taking his own life at 23.  Many had since assumed the tale too fantastic to be true, but there have been numerous other examples of people born with more than one face, or at least elements of a second one, so it’s not possible to rule out Edward’s tale entirely.

More specifically recognizable is the origin of Pepper, the microcephalic or “pinhead” featured in the show as played by Naomi Grossman, certainly based upon the famous Schlitzie, who appeared in Tod Browning’s famous film “Freaks”.

Schlitzie actually appeared in another film as well, “The Sideshow” and worked in multiple circuses to great success up until his death in 1971.

As human mutations go, ectrodactyly fingers aren’t that uncommon; most digit disorders are inherited. But still, a number of sideshow performers became quite famous as ‘lobster boys’, probably none more so than Grady Stiles, whose family had carried the trait since the 1800s, and whose father had worked the sideshow circuit himself. In “American Horror Story”, Jimmy Darling, played by series regular Evan Peters, plays the lobster boy of the show who pays tribute to Stiles not just in sharing the condition, but in referencing the actual convoluted murder plot that involved Stiles’ own family paying another freak to murder him. The actual Grady Stiles appearance is shown in the show’s opening credits, but Evan, who is quite the looker, seems to have more in common with handsome sideshow performer Fred Wilson, who worked in the second half of the 19th century.

Polycephalics, or two-headed animals, make their appearance on the show in the form of Sarah Paulson playing both Bette and Dot Tattler, dicephalic twins with two heads and at least the physical appearance of shared everything else. While their story arc seems closer to the famous Daisy and Violet Hilton, two barely-conjoined twins who went on to some degree of vaudeville fame (and appeared in “Freaks” themselves), the Tattler’s joining is considerably more rare and similar to Abigail and Brittany Hensel, pictured above, who had their own reality show recently on TLC.

Of course, many of the actors on the show are real freaks like Rose Siggins, who plays Legless Suzi, Mat Fraser who plays Paul the Illustrated Seal who suffers from Phocomelia Syndrome, and Jyoti Amge, the world’s smallest living woman, who charmingly plays Ma Petite. It’s important to remember that although it can be shocking at first to encounter people who have these rare conditions, that they are people too with feelings just like you. They want to be treated like everybody else and it’s really quite rude to do otherwise. However, I’m sad to report that Angela Bassett’s three-breasted woman on the show doesn’t appear to based on a real person so much as the famous mutant prostitute in the movie “Total Recall”. Recent reports to the contrary appear to be a hoax. I’m afraid I might have some trouble keeping my ‘eyes up here’, as it were, if she were real.

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