Pepper The Pinhead

Another Season of AHS Bites The Dust

Well, it’s over.

And it ended as it began but I for one, still have about 148 questions.

It’s the present day and we meet Lana and her new sapphic squeeze, an opera singer or performer of some sort, as she’s being interviewed  by a TV news crew and Lord, did the make-up people work on her face, to give her a necessary seventy or eighty year old look.   Apparently, she’s an accomplished author with six–count ‘em–six best selling novels and not only that, she’s apparently, a TV personality too;  an investigative reporter and host of her own  TV show, you know the kind–that  of the crime solving genre.  She’s also about to be honored at the Kennedy Center.

Apparently, her ambitious need to expose Briarcliff as the hell hole it is, is what catapulted her to such success.     The expose began as a documentary.  She and a camera crew sneak into Briarcliff courtesy of that secret tunnel that Sister Satan introduced to at the very beginning.     We hear how she demanded to see Sister Jude who according to Lana tells us, is still there, lo those many years later.

We treated to a scene of Lana and company entering Jude’s cell, dark and dank and dirty, and on what was once a bed–I think–sits a clump of humanity with wilder than wild hair.   The camera lights prove it’s Jude, who was left in Briarcliff and forgotten.   Jude was the only source left that could prove how the Church (when it owned the asylum)  had looked the other way with regards to mistreatment and scientific experiments.

But is it really Jude?  Nah, that was either Lana’s poetic license…OR…..really bad editing.

We learn that Kit actually rescued Jude and took her home to live with him and his two kids.  The Sister Wives are no longer part of the equation.   His mulato wife killed grace with a couple of ax whacks in the back.    Jude’s name is now Betty Drake.   Kit said he did it–took Jude into his home–as his way of forgiving and forgetting all that crap that happened to him at Briarcliff.    Taking care of Jude, he felt, was his redemption.

He conveys to Lana that it was rough going for a while.  After a lengthy detox, Jude was sedated for years.   She’d forget where she was from time to time and think she was back at Briarcliff and scream and carry on, yelling at Kit’s kids mostly.  She couldn’t understand why there were kids around her.  There was no children’s ward at Briarcliff.

Years later while in the midst of a swing dance lesson, Jude develops a bloody nose.    I’m thinking leukemia    We see her on her death bed, whispering life lessons to Kit’s kids.

To the son: Don’t take shit from the man.

To the daughter:  Never let men dominate you.

The kids are sent out of the room and Jude sees the Angel of Death making her last appearance in the corner of the room.   There she is, decked out in black, wings fully extended  and all puckered up to give Jude that final kiss that’ll take her up, up and away.

Or down, down, down, if you believe the Old Testament.

So, by 38 minutes into the season finale, Jude dies and we’re whisked back to present day.  Lana accomplished her goal and closed down Briarcliff.     She decides to take on the Monsignor–now a Cardinal in New York.   She says he knows about Dr. Arden, the experiments…the cruelty, etc., and we learn that he offs himself in a bathtub.    Slit wrists which are oozing life, turn the bathwater to a deep crimson.

Lana then tells the reporter that  she carried Bloody Face’s child to full term and gave him up for adoption.   His name is Johnny.    We’ve met him before.  Dylan McDermott’s character is genetically programmed to grow up to be the be Son of Bloody Face and all that that implies.   His made an effort to pick up where his father left off.    We saw evidence of that.

Anyway, Lana continues on with the interview and expresses regret for giving him up, but felt she had no other options.    And wouldn’t you know, Johnny seemingly part of the  camera crew.   He even hands her some water during a break in the interview.    Somehow, she knows it’s her son.    After the camera crew leaves, she gets up to make herself a drink and knows he stayed behind. She  implores him to finally come out of hiding to ‘get this thing over with.”  She knows he’s about to kill her.  Johnny is a psychotic sure, but he’s also an angry whack job, which never bodes well.    He was a screwed up kid, in and out of Juvie and now here he is, 48 years old and wanting to whack his mother for giving him away and killing his father.

He pulls a gun on her, but she turn the tables and sweetly convinces Johnny that he’s not only a part of his maniacal father, but he’s also a part of he That means he has at least half the capacity to be a decent human being.     He relinquishes the gun and she takes it away from him, only to point it at his forehead and shoots.

Bang!!!!

Like father, like son.

The show segues back to the very first show, when Lana was desperately trying to gain access to Briarcliff to get an exclusive with Bloody Face.  She gained access to Jude’s office through a ruse.    She claimed she wanted to do a fluff piece on the asylum’s bakery which apparently makes a dandy bread.   Jude escorts her to the front door after learning that the all she really wanted was an interview with Bloody Face who was supposed to be brought to Briarcliff for mental assessment.   She reminds Lana how difficult life can be for a woman with lofty goals and ambitions.  This was 1962.    The last thing we hear; the last thing we see are these two women facing each other with glares that had laser-like intensity.    This was how the first scene with Lana and Jude ended 51 years ago, when Jude realized Lana only wanted to interview Bloody Face.   Jude tells her that whenever you look into the eyes of evil, evil looks back at you.

Then, Lana leaves and Jude turns around as the  camera pans to the face of  a shiny, glossy statue of the Virgin Mary which stands in Briarcliff’s foyer.   The head is tilted as if glancing in the nun’s direction.    Gee, no hidden anti-Catholic sentiment there, huh?

I suppose it’s safe to say that Lana’s stint in the snake pit that was Briarcliff didn’t turn Lana into some cold, emotionless bitch with ambitions large enough to choke a whale.   Lana entered Briarcliff that way and walked through its doors unchanged.    Sister Jude recognized that right off the bat and in her special, ‘no holds barred’ manner, told her so.    She wasn’t predicting Lana’s life per se, but she certainly called it.   Lana didn’t have what Jude or Kit had:   at least a small period in life where there was peace and normalcy.

If I’m right, then I’ll give the writers a rate-a-record score of 79 for adding a smidge of pathos, but was it enough?   Not for me, then again, I’ve come to expect a certain shoddiness with AHS..

Characters were killed off too soon.   There were more holes in the plot line than in Bonnie and Clyde’s ambushed car.   We didn’t get to spend much time in Johnny’s head.   I could’ve used an episode delving into all of his angst.    What about that evil little girl who killed her friend and then her whole family?    What happened to the crazy ass serial masterbator????  And Kit’s alien space babies?    The ones that were so ‘special’?     One grew up to be a doctor, the other a lawyer.    Hhhhh’mmmmm, do those two occupations in this day and age really make them all that ‘special’?   Well, for a Jewish mother, maybe……

Lana was the only major character who survived.   Sister Satan and Dr. Arden were burned to death in the asylum’s crematorium.  Threadson was shot in the head several episodes back.    The Monsignor/Cardinal committed suicide. As far as I’m concerned, all three deaths happened prematurely and allowed a season finale that was anti-climatic.   In the finale, Jude died of cancer and so did Kit, although he was abducted by the same bright white light that became an obscure third or fourth level character on the show this season.   Why wasn’t this connection to space beings expounded  upon?  Why did those space freaks murder and mutilate all those women?    What happened to Pepper the Pinhead???     And why couldn’t we learn more about the forest dwelling  critters that Arden created?   And soooooo much more could’ve been done with the satanic angle, but nooooooooo!!!!!!

Season two jumped the shark so many times that poor thing’s dorsal fin was sheared off.

Anyway, I wasn’t as colossally disappointed as I was when season one ended.  And while I have questions, I think  that the unscripted dangling participles that I swat away like slimy tentacles are supposed to make me  come up with my own answers; my own conclusions.   Whenever I encounter endings like this in books, TV shows, movies and such,  I hearken back to a press conference I attended back in 1993.  girl coat

Directing wunderkind, Steven Spielberg came to Houston on a press tour promoting his boffo hit, “Schindler’s List.”     This involved filling a theater with local   high school kids, have them watch the movie then he would take their questions about the flick.   All members of the press could do was watch and at least in my case, learn.

One astute young woman asked Herr Spielberg about the little Jewish girl in the Warsaw ghetto who had worn the pinkish red coat;  the only bit of color in the black and white film.   Her question focused on the coat color and what that  was supposed to mean.

He responded without missing a beat, “It means whatever you need it to mean.”

That day, I learned that poetic license was a tool that the story teller could use at his or her discretion and it’s one that sometimes, an audience member has to employ as well.

scoobydoo_02And in spite of my many criticisms, I can’t wait for  Season 3.

Seriously, I can’t.

As for plotlines, I’m thinking a family of vampires moves into an abandoned but still ‘hot’ nuclear power plant and the fun begins when genetic mutations run amok while angry neighbors who complain, mysteriously after a  mod painted van called “The Mystery Machine” filled with four hips kids including one beatnik lookin’ cat named Shaggy who pals around with his  giant, snack eating, running in place while bongos play, talking dog with a speech impediment, arrives on the scene.

And here I’ll be at my keyboard poised at the ready in the  minutes after the  finale ends, closing the curtain on yet another fakakta AHS season.  That’s when and where  I’ll hold writers/creators Ryan Murphy and Bryan Falchuk  responsible for series of shows that leave more questions unanswered, throw logic out the window and could have been/should have been so much better.

And because of that, I’ll fully expect one or both to appear on camera and admit that they would’ve gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids!!!!!

Pepper Is A Pinhead; Schlitze Was The Inspiration

A year ago—maybe longer—I wrote a post about a genetic condition commonly known as “Pinhead Syndrome”.    And since the premier of American Horror Story: Asylum its been receiving renewed interest.

Actress, Naomi Grossman endures grueling hours of special make up,  putting on oversized clothes and prosthetic application to transform into Pepper, a patient incarcerated in the edifice which serves as this season’s main character:  an asylum called Briarcliff.   Pepper is  microcephalic.

In the simplest of terms,  the character  has a considerably smaller head than normal, due to a smaller than normal brain case.   She  seems  gentle and playful but as we learned in the first episode this season, she has a very violent past.  She drowned her nephew and cut off his ears.  But we later learn, that her brother in-law committed the murder and mutilation and blamed it on her because of her disability. 

Having microcephaly doesn’t automatically make one homicidal, and from what I understand, won’t necessarily make the patient mentally disabled.     According to the Cleveland Clinic, microcephaly is often associated with some degree of mental retardation. However, in 15 percent of the cases, a child born with this anomaly, will have normal intelligence.   Microcephaly is also rare,  occurring in one out of every 6200 to 8500 births.   The causes can be a number of things, including genetic mutation, pre-natal diabetes or malnutrition to mercury poisoning and drinking or the use of drugs during a pregnancy.

Pepper was no doubt based on one of the world’s most famous ‘pinheads”, Schlitze , who co-starred in Tod Browning’s original American horror story, the 1932 film “Freaks”.   More about this person a littler later on in this post.

BUT FIRST, A BIT ABOUT THE FILM

The cast was almost completely composed of actual carnival performers.   Browning took the exceptional step of casting real people with deformities and what have you,  as the eponymous sideshow “freaks,” rather than using costumes and makeup.    This gave the movie an incredible, almost tactile realness.   It’s an amazing movie, really.

Here’s a sampling:

.

Interesting isn’t it that with their monotonous chant, the “freaks”  decided to accept the “normal” looking woman?   You might ask, is this some parallel universe?  No, it’s simply their everyday world where “normal” is different and being different is quite the norm.

And it was a world Browning knew very well.  He’d been a member of a traveling circus  in his early years, and much of the film was drawn from his personal experiences. In the film, the physically deformed “freaks” are inherently trusting and honorable people, while the real monsters are the “normal” members of the circus C0-stars in this celluloid epic  include Olga Roderick as the bearded lady.   Frances O’Connor and Martha Morris are the Armless Wonders.   Daisy and Violet Hilton (no relation to Paris or Nikki—I don’t think) star as the conjoined twins they were in life.

MEET SCHLITZE

As you can see,  the resemblance  of  AHS’s Pepper  to Schlitze is amazing.  The show’s makeup artist,  Christien Tinsley is a genius.

Schlitze’s true identity is a bit vague, but most believe that this female looking, dress wearing entity was born very much a  male, named  Simon Metz on September 10, 1901 in the Bronx. His birth parents remain mysterious figures to this day and young Simon was likely ‘sold’ to the owner of some circus sideshow because of a rather obvious birth defect.

Schlitze was born microcephalic, and had the cognitive abilities of a four-year old.

Nowadays, a movie like this wouldn’t stand a chance of even getting green lit, much less having its script read by any reputable studio brass.   And if it ever got to distribution in theaters…even the art house ones, it would probably get shut down by angry, torch-bearing protesters and run out-of-town on a rail, but back in the late 1800’s through the early 1950’s,  the display and exhibiting of ‘pinheads’ and other human anomalies was nothing new and in fact, considered entertainment.   In the 1800’s pinheads were often exhibited as a species apart from man, as the last members of an ancient race – usually Aztecs – and on occasion they were billed as being from another planet.

During his lifetime, Schlitze was exhibited publicly as all of these things.    For much of his career, he rarely spoke and was almost always billed as female. This was mostly due to his dress-like attire which was actually an attire choice based purely on the fact that he was completely incontinent.  A dress allowed him more rapid access to do what …well, what needs to transpire when one is incontinent.

While popular with crowds, Schlitze’s biggest fans were his colleagues and caretakers. To sum up the reason for this fondness is difficult, but the wonderment Schlitze held for the daily mundane, his childlike exuberance, his eternal innocence greatly influenced those around him. Schlitze was often called ‘a ray of sunshine’, and his smile and unconditional love shined on all those around him.

During his long career Schlitze entertained millions of carnival and film goers with his antics. He was perhaps best known for his role in Freaks, – though he also appeared in Island Of Lost Souls opposite Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. As a sideshow entertainer, iwas employed by every major name in the business. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Clyde Beatty Circus, Tom Mix Circus, West Coast Shows, Vanteen & Lee Circus Sideshow, and the Dobritsch International Circus all had Schlitze in their shows at one point or another.

Although Schlitze had no known biological family, during the 1936 season of the Tom Mix Circus sideshow George Surtees, a chimpanzee trainer, became  his legal guardian. Surtees was, by all accounts, a caring and loving guardian but when he passed in the early 1960’s his daughter had Schlitze committed to a Los Angeles County Hospital.

Schlitze remained committed for some time, until he was recognized by sword swallower, Bill Unks, who just happened to be working at the hospital during the off-season when he noticed a very sad and depressed Schlitze.  Apparently, Schlitze missed the carnival, his friends and the adoration of the crowds. Hospital authorities eventually determined that the best care for Schlitze would be to make him a ward of Unks’ employer, showman Sam Kortes, and return to the sideshow, which he did for a time.

.

I remember seeing Freaks on an edition of Night Flight back in the early  80’s.   Remember Night Flight?   It was the forerunner to MTV in many ways and in many ways, it was so much better.
But that’s how I first became introduced to Schlitze and Freaks .  It wasn’t because I got some rise out of Hollywood’s blatant exploitation of these poor people, but rather, because it was hard for me to wrap my head around these living, breathing anomalies and their own very special contribution to humanity.   Their dynamic individuality and the humanity  athey had with each other was absolutely amazing to watch.   They were so normal and dignified, even in the midst of being so abnormal and undignified.    I mean think about it:  a man with a tiny head, a female with a chin bearing lycanthropic-looking fur and a woman who was nothing more than a limbless trunk with a head attached, tends to make one think otherwise.

Film students know Schlitze and the strange cast of Freaks.   The movie is required viewing in many film schools in this country.  In 1994, Freaks was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being  “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

And Schlitze contributed to that as well.

As he entered the autumn of his life, he lived in a small apartment near MacArthur Park Lake in downtown Los Angeles.    Schlitze loved being out doors and could often be seen feeding the pigeons and ducks with his guardian, even performing a bit  for people as they passed by.

He continued to enchant crowds until his death in 1971 at the age of 71.  His death certificate says he died due to bronchial pneumonia brought on by Medullary Depression.    He was buried in an unmarked grave at the Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Roland Hills, California.    Schlitze’s grave remained unmarked until August 2008, when members of the website, www.findadeath.com raised almost $400 to purchase him a proper headstone…and as promised in the video, a big hat with an even bigger feather.
May “Schlitze Surtees” rest in peace.
Photo courtesy findadeath.com.

I would suggest seeing Freaks, if you can.  It’s an interesting, albeit a rather embarrassing part of our cinematic history, but vital to understand how and why these people were so misunderstood and how and why our ignorance and fear prompted our mistreatment of them.

The good news is that we’ve made tremendous headway since this movie was made 79 years ago.    We’ve learned tolerance and we now understand the physical ramifications of genetic mutations.   There are government programs and research facilities that have been created to combat these rare birth anomalies.   For those afflicted with them, there are now special homes and assisted living centers where these people can learn and thrive

Asylums such Briarcliff  though without the early 1960’s torturous poetic license which is depicted in AHS (and reportedly, not all that far fetched)  enter the picture only when a criminal element does as well.   And for those with microcephaly, that IS the exception; not the rule.

This very real world is progress indeed and a far cry from the movie, Freaks,  circus sideshows in general and Schlitze’s 1940’s bio which basically exploited his “wide array of “talents” that included singing, dancing……and counting to ten.