Why are clowns scary? Clowns come up again and again in horror films as murderers (and sometimes worse). In reality, I would be willing to bet that the median postal worker has killed a lot more people than the median clown, yet pyscho clowns populate horror films, while mailmen on the big screen are family friendly members of the neighborhood community. Whatever the reason, killer clowns are a recurring trope in slashers, and the clown in AHS 4th season is truly frightening (SPOILERS COMING). In his blood stained outfit, he hunches, leering at his victims as the music plays, the tension builds, and your heart rate speeds. Just when you think nothing will happen BLAU – he’s bludgeoning his victims, knocking them unconscious with bowling pins. When they wake up, the scene is even darker, gorier, and, of course, creepier.
The murderous clown is a perfect synecdoche for the show – a classic piece of film horror iconography, mastered. Is there a more disturbing scene in the annals of TV than the earlier season AHS instance where the abusive mother put the scared-of-her-reflection down-syndrome ridden child in a closet full of mirrors? Images such as this, visualizations of creepiness, have always been American Horror Story’s strong suit, and it seems they have just committed to it this season. In addition to the clown, there is an actual freak show. This carnival of horrors allows AHS to flex its visual muscles without worrying too much about how to fit the various images in a narrative structure.
This is actually not entirely fair. Definite plot themes run through this season: conformity is bad, privilege is unjust, tolerance for those that are different is good. Indeed, it seems to be building towards a view of the world in which the freaks are the actual heroes, and the normal are villains. In this way, the writers try to invert traditional horror iconography, where the beautiful are victims and the ugly victimize. Like the many scary movie screenwriters who try to do more than scare, they will probably fail at this. AHS’ contention that the freaks are the victims falls apart when you consider that, two episodes in, these social outcasts have already murdered numerous people, often for dubious reasons. I expect that, later this season, the writers will try to humanize the extremely creepy clown – they’ve already humanized the very creepy, matricidal two-headed lady by having the “duo” perform an anachronistic (this season takes place in 1952, Jupiter Florida) rendition of Fiona Apple’s Criminal. That scene rocked, but I doubt the writers will be able to make the clown likable. He’s killed too many people already and just getting an image of him for this article gave me the willies. But perhaps they can make the carnies an object of empathy.
If they fail, it is OK because of the show’s other strengths; specifically, it is visually perfect for its genre. Any one shot in the first two episodes could be made into a print and sold at a “Little House of Horrors.” The idyllic ‘50s pastels building tension until a scene of blood-red violence disrupts the equilibrium, a crew of disfigured freaks staining the Leave-It-To-Beaver landscapes – the show is a compilation of stills that are stunning on their own, but when put together in a flip-book create something both beautiful and stomach-turning, that classic thing you do not enjoy seeing but cannot look away from. Contrasting iconography has always been horror flicks contribution to cinema, and AHS’s 4th
season is a penultimate example of this.
Indeed, going for anything else almost seems like a waste of time. The freak show also has the amazing Kathy Bates (Misery, Primary Colors, Titanic) as its bearded lady, but it would be foolhardy if it tried to optimize by creating deep performances that match her acting chops – American Horror Story is best when it just strings together a bunch of creepy scenes, leaving you in awe at the images and shocked enough to check to see if your bedroom door is locked – you know, just to be safe.