The Medical Mysteries and Defects Behind American Horror Story: Freak Show

Sacral Agenesis (Non-Working Legs)

Sacral Agenesis (Non-Working Legs)

The actress who plays Legless Suzi, Rose Siggins, is actually legless. Siggins has Sacral Agenesis, a disorder that caused her to be born without working legs. Doctors performed the amputation when she was a toddler, citing risks to her eyesight if she did not have them removed. Siggins was very happy with her appearance, but tragically passed away in December 2015.

Congenital amputation

Congenital amputation

Some people are actually born without limbs at all, especially in the 1960s when there were unknown side effects to drugs administered during pregnancy. However, congenital amputation has multiple biological causes that can be impossible to predict. Harmful toxins such as alcohol and strong chemicals administered during pregnancy can also result in the absence of limbs.

Ichthyosis

Ichthyosis

Ichthyosis, a genetic skin disorder that results in dry, scaly skin, was the affliction of 1920s circus performers named Esther and William Parnell. The pair were nicknamed “The Alligator-Skinned Twins”, and were likely the inspiration for Penny the Candy Striper. Though Penny wasn’t initially a freak in the show, her father transformed her into a lizard-like creature with a tattooed face and split tongue.

Phocomelia (Deformed Limbs)

Phocomelia (Deformed Limbs)

The actor who depicts Paul The Illustrated Seal is actually named Mat Fraser. Fraser has a rare congenital disorder called thalidomide-induced Phocomelia, caused by the morning sickness drug Thalidomide. The drug was popular in the 50’s and resulted in birth defects such as Mats deformed limbs. Mat takes pride in his disability, calling himself a “freak actor” and praising shows such as “AHS: Freak Show” for featuring actors with disabilities.

Extra Limbs

Extra Limbs

The third leg shown on the nude girl in the credit sequence of “AHS: Freak Show,” has a real medical defect. The result of fused twin embryos, the disorder has similar origins as conjoined twins. Throughout medical history, there have been well-documented cases of people born with up to eight limbs. Depending on the culture, these people have been depicted as either deities or freaks.

Syndactyly (Lobster Claws)

Syndactyly (Lobster Claws)

Jimmy Darling, the fictional character in the “AHS: Freak Show” universe, is actually Evan Peters, who does not have a deformity. Syndactyly, otherwise known as lobster claws, is a genetic disorder that’s real that effects up to 3,000 newborns a year. The inspiration for Jimmy was Grady Stiles, who came from a long line of family members who had syndactyly. He was nicknamed “lobster boy”.

Pituitary Dwarfism (Small Size)

Pituitary Dwarfism (Small Size)

The “AHS” character Meep is played by actor Ben Woolf, who also starred in A”merican Horror Story: Murder House.” Ben was born with a growth disorder called Pituitary Dwarfism, caused by a growth hormone deficiency. On the show, Meep has a singular vocabulary, but Ben Woolf was a pre-school teacher, aside from his acting roles. Woolf tragically died when he was hit by a car in Los Angeles.

Hermaphrodites

Hermaphrodites

The character of Desiree Dupree, who had ambiguous genitalia, was based on hermaphrodites. A hermaphrodite, who is born with both male and female sex organs, is the cause of a very rare mutation during fertilization. In the American Horror Story: Freak Show universe, Dupree turned out not to actually be a hermaphrodite, just the victim of a large clitoris.

Psychopathic Tendencies

Psychopathic Tendencies

Dandy Mott, portrayed by Finn Wittrock, may be one of the scariest parts of “AHS: Freak Show,” due to his clearly psychopathic tendencies. Psychopaths are both born and bred as a result of genetics and their environment, which in Dandy’s case, is a cushy, spoiled upbringing. More extreme psychopaths can be triggered to conduct violent outbursts, often having no sympathy for their victims.

Back Knee Deformity

Back Knee Deformity

A birth defect called back knee deformity was the likely cause of former sideshow actor Robert Huddleston’s pony boy syndrome. Huddleston’s odd posture gave him the appearance of a horse, making him an ideal “freak show” attraction. The character is briefly seen in the opening of “American Horror Story: Freak Show” opening credits.

Virchow-Seckel Syndrome

Virchow-Seckel Syndrome

Another inspiration for the character of Meep was a girl named Minnie Woolsey, who suffered from Virchow-Seckel Syndrome. While Ben Woolf did not have Virchow-Seckel Syndrome, the rare congenital nanosomic disorder resulted in mental issues, as well as partial blindness and baldness for Woolsey. It’s also known as bird-headed dwarfism.

Achondroplasia (Small Size)

Achondroplasia (Small Size)

Ma Petite is portrayed by the smallest person in the world, literally. Jyoti Amge’s small size is the cause of achondroplasia, a growth abnormality. Amge is 23 inches tall, and on her 18th birthday, she was awarded with the Guinness Book World Record for the World’s Smallest Person. Outside of the “AHS” world, Jyoti Amge hates being picked up or treated like a doll.

Hysterical Strength

Hysterical Strength

While having superhuman strength isn’t a real disorder, hysterical strength is a phenomenon that can temporarily enable average people to go beyond their limits during stressful episodes. It’s suspected that hysterical strength comes from adrenaline, or possibly delirium, which can occur during life and death situations. Neither the “AHS: Freak Show” character Dell Toledo or actor Michael Chiklis are known to have any experiences with hysterical strength, so the ability is purely a fabrication.

Conjoined Twins (Attached Twins)

Conjoined Twins (Attached Twins)

Sarah Paulson, who plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler, does not actually suffer from a disability or have a birth defect. However, the characters of Dot and Bette Tattler are inspired by a very real birth defect. Abigail and Brittany Hensel are conjoined twins who were born in 1990, with a disorder very similar to the fictional Dot and Bette. Dot and Bette were based on actual “freak show” performers, Daisy and Violet Hilton, were similarly cast out by their family in the early 1900s and joined an oddities tour and show similar to the fictional one on “AHS.”

Truncated Limbs

Truncated Limbs

One of the shown “freaks” during the opening credits of “AHS: Freak Show” was a man with truncated limbs. Likely inspired by historical “freak” Nicodemus The Indescribable, the man with the ailment, John Doogs suffered from curtailed limbs in the form of small, uneven legs, a webbed foot, hooked leg and a small arm. Doogs was known as an intelligent, kind man and talented performer.

Hirsutism (Male Hair Growth Patterns)

Hirsutism (Male Hair Growth Patterns)

Hirsutism, which results in women having male patterns of hair growth, is the inspiration for “AHS’s” bearded lady. Portrayed by Kathy Bates, who does not have a beard in real life, the disorder can be caused by an imbalance of female sex hormones. The real life inspiration for Kathy’s character, Ethel Darling, was the famous bearded woman Madame Devere. Devere toured with shows until her death in 1912.

Hypertrichosis

Hypertrichosis

Another likely inspiration for Ethel Darling was probably the famous “Lion-Faced Boy.” Actually named Stefan Bibrowski, the German man suffered from hypertrichosis, which resulted in a long, thick coat of hair all over his face. The disorder can cause hair grow all over the body, in patches or all over the head.

Acrotomophilia

Acrotomophilia

The topic of acrotomophilia, or the sexual attraction to amputees, is touched on within the “AHS: Freak Show” universe. During the episode where Edward Mordrake comes to claim a soul, Elsa reveals she has nothing beneath under her knees. It was an unfortunate result of a snuff film she was tricked to partake in while working as a dominatrix. Such specific sexual preferences are tied to hormones, environmental factors as well as genetics.

Sadism

Sadism

A big reveal in “American Horror Story: Freak Show” is that Arthur Arden, a character from a previous season, is actually the man who amputated Elsa Mars. Arden is depicted as a morally corrupt, cruel man with an affinity for torture and manipulation. These personality traits are likely based on sadism, or the desire to deliberately inflict pain on someone. Sadistic Personality Disorder can be caused by biological factors, but environment and upbringing are also huge factors.

Hypermobility

Hypermobility

While someone can become a contortionist with strength training and yoga, many extremely flexible people are also believed to be double jointed. Being double jointed isn’t common, just in very rare cases. The appearance of double joints is actually the cause of hyper mobility syndrome. Hyper mobility is attributed to bone shape and family history.

Coulrophobia

Coulrophobia

The inspiration for the murderous Twisty the Clown is unknown, but widely speculated to be based off urban legends, as well as a serial killer named John Wayne Gacy. The actual fear of clowns, which was played off of in Stephen King’s It, is a real phobia called coulrophobia. While many instances of coulrophobia are due to childhood experiences with clowns, some phobias may actually be genetic. Recent studies show that memories could be passed through DNA from ancestors.

Microcephaly

Microcephaly

Microcephaly, the disorder that characters Pepper and Salty had in “AHS: Freak Show,” is a real birth defect. Microcephaly is miniscule brain size, resulting in a smaller head size, despite an average sized face. It occurs in the womb, and can be caused by chromosomal abnormalities, or maternal alcohol abuse. Depending on the severity of the disorder, mental retardation or neurological problems can also come with the disease. Naomi Grossman and Christopher Neiman, who played Salty and Pepper, did not have this disorder.

Accessory Breast

Accessory Breast

Desiree Dupree, played by Angela Bassett on “AHS: Freak Show,” who has a third breast. Sensationalized in films such as Total Recall, having extra body parts is actually a birth defect. Polymelia is when a child is born with extra limbs, hexadactyly is having six digits, either fingers or toes. The third breast, or an accessory breast, is a real condition that may or may not need surgery to remove. It’s typically harmless to men and women.

Alcoholism

Alcoholism

More than one character in the “AHS: Freak Show” universe suffers from alcoholism, which isn’t just a response to environment. Alcoholism can be genetic, and individuals with a history of alcoholism in their family are more likely to have the disease. However, social factors and upbringing are definitely weigh in on the likelihood of developing alcoholism.

Lymphedema

Lymphedema

Lymphedema, or severe swelling in the arms and or legs, can cause a condition where arms, legs, feet and hands become gargantuan. Before modern medicine, many people suffering from Lymphedema, or Milroy’s Disease, were seen as freaks of nature, such as Fanny Mills. Mills, known as “The Ohio Big Foot Girl”, had feet that were nineteen inches in length. A person with lymphedema is shown in the opening credits of “AHS: Freak Show,” and although it wasn’t intentional, Kathy Bates suffers from a mild case of lymphedema.

Abnormal Height

Abnormal Height

Amazon Eve, the extremely tall and strong woman on “AHS: Freak Show” is depicted by transgender actress Erika Ervin. While the character is not transgender, the physical attributes of Eve are based on irregularities that can occur from the pituitary gland, resulting in abnormal height in women. A woman suffering from this disorder now, Siddiqa Parvin, is eight foot tall and weighs about 160 kg. Parvin is on record for being the tallest woman in the world.

Oral Fixation

Oral Fixation

While not immediately noticed as a disorder in the “AHS: Freak Show” universe, Dandy Mott’s oral fixation with his glass baby bottle is a common mouth stimulation first introduced by Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that oral fixations were the cause of incomplete phases in development, and if not overcome, could result in harmful behavior and various personality disorders.

Epilepsy

Epilepsy

Though the “AHS: Freak Show” fortune teller, played by Emma Roberts, was a fraud, fortune-telling has a long, colorful history in freak shows. Despite the most logical explanations for predictions and readings, such as cold readings and flat out fraud, there are medical ties to vivid dreams, visions, and visits from the divine. Brain tumors and undiagnosed bouts of epilepsy can result in hallucinations bearing similarities to psychic moments.

Achondroplasia (Little People)

Achondroplasia (Little People)

While bearing similarities to pituitary dwarfism, achondroplasia is the most common cause of dwarfism, impacting about 70% of little people. Not every little person gets a diagnosis. Drew Rin Varick, who plays Toulouse in “AHS: Freak Show” is actually a little person who regularly gets work due to his range, not just his small size. Other influential little people actors include Peter Dinklage of “Game of Thrones” and movie star Verne Troyer.

Morbid Obesity

Morbid Obesity

While probably one of the most common ailments in the “AHS: Freak Show” universe, morbid obesity isn’t always caused by overeating. Though Ima Wiggles, played by obese actress Chrissy Metz, is frequently shown eating, morbid obesity can be genetic, or triggered by pre-existing disorders such as hypothyroidism. Obesity is one of the most hazardous of health problems, as it can result in other health conditions such as diabetes, osteoarthritis and heart disease.

Mania

Mania

The characters of “AHS: Freak Show” are often unbalanced and erratic, with crazy mood swings. While in the “AHS: Freak Show” world, where the behavior is shown as mystical or supernatural occurrences such as demonic possession. In the real world, behavior like this is often mania, caused from energetic, yet unmanageable moods, unusual thought patterns, and mental illnesses. Sister Mary Eunice, played by Lilly Rabe in both “Freak Show” and “Asylum,” is shown as being possessed by a satanic force, but has characteristics similar to someone having a manic psychotic break.

Liver Disease

Liver Disease

While definitely not the scariest of “AHS: Freak Show ailments,” liver disease can be a genetically determined disorder with dire outcomes. Ethel Darling, the bearded lady played by Kathy Bates, suffers from cirrhosis, despite not drinking for years. Cirrhosis is typically caused by excessive drinking and hepatitis, but can also be caused by genetic diseases such as Wilson disease and hemochromatosis.

Forked Tongue

Forked Tongue

In the “AHS: Freak Show” universe, Penny was intentionally deformed by her father in order to disown her. He had her face tattooed and split her tongue, giving her the appearance of a reptile. While body modification enthusiasts have gone through surgeries to give them a forked tongue, similar to a snake or other reptile, babies can be born with a forked tongue. This isn’t common, but easy to fix with a quick surgery and recommended to avoid speech problems.

Extreme Body Modifications

Extreme Body Modifications

Another inspiration for actress Grace Gummer’s Penny, are people who choose to alter their appearance to look like animals. While not all enthusiasts suffer from a disease such as species dysphoria, some simply get obsessed with achieving the look of their favorite animal. Erik Sprague, a sideshow artist, is nicknamed “The Lizardman” and similar to Penny, has a split tongue and scales tattooed all over his face.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

NPD, a disorder that scientists and researchers are still uncovering, results in extreme self-absorption, a lack of empathy for others, and unhealthy levels of jealousy and insecurity. Those with NPD have similar, though not violent or psychopathic tendencies as Dandy Mott, feel entitled, are exploitative, arrogant, and require constant admiration from their peers. The disorder is influenced by coddling and extreme criticism, but has genetic ties as well.

Psychosis

Psychosis

“AHS: Freak Show” borrows from history with the character of Edward Mordake, who’s based on a potentially real life man who was born with a face on the back of his head. Though this can be similar to conjoined twins or additional limbs, the unique part of Mordake’s plight was that he claimed the face was evil. Various historians discuss Mordake’s insistence that the face would speak to him, similar to how Son of Sam David Berkowitz claimed to get orders from his neighbor’s dog. Psychosis experiences are commonly linked to mental disorders with genetic ties, such as bipolar disorder.

Depression

Depression

One of the most glossed over medical disorders of “AHS: Freak Show,” was depression, a very common condition with genetic ties. Depression results in loss of appetite and sleep, overwhelming sadness, and erratic behavior. Pepper, the “pinhead” that Elsa welcomed into the freak show family, suffered from depression after her husband and child were killed. The season closed with Pepper being shipped off to an asylum by her sister. Naomi Grossman, who played Pepper, did not suffer from any of her medical ailments on the show.

Objectum-Sexuality

Objectum-Sexuality

Objectum-Sexuality was likely the inspiration for the strange relationship between Neil Patrick Harris’s magician character, Chester Creb, and his odd puppet, Marjorie. Chester brought Marjorie into the bedroom during sexual activity, uncomfortable and unable to perform unless she was close by. Despite taunting and requests from his partners, he insisted the puppet “watch” or “be included” during sex.

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia

The character of Dandy Mott is complex, with various personality traits inspired by mental illnesses. The most notable, perhaps, is the potential diagnosis of schizophrenia. ThroughoutAmerican Horror Story: Freak Show,” it’s confirmed that Mott is the result of incest, with his mother and her second cousin. Many children of incest suffer from genetic and biological disorders such as blindness, limb malfunctions and schizophrenia.