American Horror Story gets even freakier

Note: This article contains spoilers for American Horror Story: Freak Show, as well as previous seasons of the series.

What’s scarier than a killer clown with a smile plastered on its face creeping through your house at night?

Answer: A killer clown violently stabbing your significant other in a grassy field in broad daylight.

American Horror Story, the brainchild of creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, returned on Wednesday for its fourth season, Freak Show, delivering what promises to be a darker season, a welcome change in tone in comparison to the anthology’s third season, Coven.

Taking place in Jupiter, Fla. in the 1950s during one of the last freak shows in America, Freak Show gives fans across the web who have been clamoring for a circus-themed season exactly what they’ve wanted. Filled with red- and white-striped carnival tents, carousels, and Ferris wheels, the show possesses a pop and pizazz not seen in other seasons of the anthology series. There is singing, confetti, and people, albeit very few, fawning over the freaks who call the carnival their home.

Despite the showtime feel, Freak Show is notably darker than Coven, which followed young witches as they trained in a boarding school to become the Supreme witch. Freak Show’s darkness is somewhere between the third season and the second, which was set in an asylum and completely unforgiving to viewers not attuned to horror. The fourth season, while more brutal than the third season, has time to deliver jokes (like bad singing) and present a sense of wonder around the freak show, rather than the immediate sense of horror presented in Asylum, in which the opening scene ended with a man getting his arm torn off.

One of the most spectacular elements of this new season is the unusual people who inhabit the screen. No one is without a deformity or alteration to their body, and almost everybody seems to embrace it. A bearded woman, Ethel Darling, played by Kathy Bates, is right-hand woman to the show’s leader, German expat Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange). The two do everything in their power to keep the freak show operating; it’s clear within the first episode that many of the freaks consider the show home, including Darling. Among the rest of the family of freaks is the world’s smallest woman who is, in fact, played by the world’s smallest woman, Jyoti Amge, as well as a man with arms that are not fully formed, a man who eats animal heads straight off the living body, and Pepper (Naomi Grossman), who avid viewers will be happy to know is back from Asylum in the same role. Grossman is the only actor or actress to date to be in two seasons of the show playing the same character.

The standout freak of the family, though, is the newest addition to the show, conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler, played by Sarah Paulson. In Dot and Bette, Paulson delivers two distinct characters. Bette is full of wonder and joy, willing to share her thoughts with others and handle what is thrown her way thus far in the show. Meanwhile, Dot describes the freak show as the “gates of hell” and refuses to succumb to Mars’ attempts to connect with her. Mars finds Dot and Bette after they are admitted to the hospital for reasons you’ll have to find out by watching yourself! Paulson masterfully plays these characters in stark contrast to one another to show how, despite being joined at the neck, they are distinctly different.

However, Paulson doesn’t completely steal the show. That award belongs to Twisty the Clown. Co-creator Murphy promised fans before the show aired that Twisty would be the scariest clown viewers have ever witnessed, and so far, he’s right. It’s undeniably terrifying to watch a clown murder the people of the town. What’s even more terrifying is that Twisty seems to be acting this way because he wants to be accepted, or at least wants company. The clown watches the freaks longingly from afar at one point while they perform an act similar to his murders, and he even kidnaps some of his victims.

While the show is off to a strong start, viewers won’t truly know which direction the show is headed until at least the next episode. The season preview, which plays at the end of the first episode, promises a minimum of four additional characters, including con artists, a three-breasted woman, and a strong man. And with a murderous clown whose intentions are not known, the terror could go anywhere.

If it heads in the direction it is going now (glamour with a brutal edge), this season will be one of the more dynamic of the anthology. And unlike the last season (whose only mystery was “Who will be the next Supreme?”), this season seems to have a great mystery surrounding Twisty. First, what does he want? Second, who is he? If the show maintains this mystery, it will keep viewers coming back for more like it did with the unknown Rubber Man of the first season (Murder House) and the gory mask-covered Bloody Face of the second season. The identities of both monsters were revealed later in the season, leading to intriguing plots. Here’s hoping that this season of American Horror Story will keep coming back with horror that toes the line and a mystery that isn’t solved too soon.