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Elsa Mars is a German expatriate who is managing a dying freak show. She is a character in Freak Show portrayed by Jessica Lange. Elsa is a tortured woman with a dangerous desire for fame and a chilling secret. One that, when uncovered, reveals that she has more in common with her "monsters" than it appears.


Elsa Mars was a singer and German expatriate with a dark past of prostitution. She was a collector and caregiver of human oddities, often finding them in orphanages, asylums, hospitals, and jails. Even though her intentions for giving her "monsters" a home was partially self-serving, she was still the leader of the troupe and received the utmost respect, and she did care for the freaks to some extent. However, due to the rise of television and radio, the entertainment once provided by freak shows was being received elsewhere. Despite this, Elsa was obsessed with becoming an international star; if only she could persuade the sleepy hamlet of Jupiter, Florida to buy a ticket.

Personality and Appearance[]

Elsa is a woman with a very astute fashion sense. It's not rare to see the leader of the freaks adorned in feathers or fur, and it's likely that these flashy clothing choices are inspired by her Hollywood idols of the era. Still, Elsa's outfits have undertones of a professional, sending the message that she's a powerful force to be reckoned with. Even in casual and sleepwear, she is dressed in the most lavish fabric, generally silk. And when she's out on the town she's never caught dead without her large personalized purse engraved with her show's devilish logo. When it comes to her golden locks, she sticks to a classic, tight-curled hairdo fitting of the time period. She often wears light makeup, unless she is performing of course. Elsa's outfits on stage are that of a completely different variety. They communicate her desire to be a true performer.

During Freak Show, she shows immense desire to be more than she thinks she already is. On the outside, it appears that she has succumbed to the ways of greed and often appears to be cold. Much of the time, Elsa does what she feels she needs to do to get where she wants to be. However, Elsa is willing to show her soft side, even for the smallest moment. Examples of this include her relationship with the freaks, as she is the victim of a freak accident herself, and her relationship with Massimo Dolcefino whom she has feelings for. And eventually, she eventually grew to care about all of them, and she decides the freaks meant more to her than the money itself.


Having read in the paper that "something extraordinary" had been admitted to the hospital, Elsa pays a visit on the pretense of visiting an ailing aunt. After befriending the candy-striper Penny and borrowing her uniform, she makes her way past the police guard into the secure wing to get a closer look. She finds the sleeping conjoined twins, Bette and Dot Tattler, and is immediately delighted by their potential as her new headlining act and saviors of her floundering freak show.

After repeated visits, she is able to piece together involvement in their mother's murder. She counsels that they get their story straight for the police. With the newspapers naming them as suspects in Twisty's murder spree, she convinces them to take refuge within her troupe of freaks.[1]

Elsa continues to try to integrate the twins into her show and is surprised that Dot has actual singing talent. Her shock becomes horror when Elsa finds herself upstaged by a more popular act. With the arrival of Dell and Desiree, Elsa deputizes the married couple into emcee and musical director duties, respectively; she focuses the rest of her energies on improving her talent. She is amused when she learns that Jimmy Darling disposed of an investigating police officer.[2]

She is led to believe a planted "prediction" by Maggie Esmerelda that a man will come to change her music career. Elsa's determination to rid herself of the twins entices her to call upon the legendary Edward Mordrake by breaking carnival tradition and holding a performance rehearsal on Halloween.[3] Elsa recalls to Mordrake her life in 1932 Weimar as a dominatrix in a sex club. She would torture a soldier by making him sit on a toilet seat lined with nails, and became so famous that she was well-paid to let an audience watch. Mordrake is not pleased, insisting on hearing about her legs. Elsa recalls how, in Brandenburg, she was drugged and tricked into doing a snuff film where her legs were amputated with a chainsaw. Her soldier client, who was in love with her, saved her as soon as the producers of the snuff film were gone, and she hated him for saving her life. Her film was distributed all over Germany and Austria, and while she was famous, she knew her career was over. The face says that she is the one. She says she is ready for him to take her, and he nearly stabs her, but he is stopped when he hears a toy piano playing.[4]

Stanley introduces himself as a television producer interested in spotlighting Elsa. She balks at the offer, insisting her medium must be cinema. She reconsiders after her showcase to the citizens of Jupiter bores the unruly crowd. Elsa and the Tattlers discuss Stanley's plans and the promises he's made for each. Elsa tells them that as their new mentor, she has arranged for a seamstress to craft something for them the next day so they can look their best. She spirits them away to Mott Manor.[5]

Elsa begins practicing throwing knives at a dummy strapped to a spinning wheel, an act she plans to use for her upcoming television show. Ethel expresses her concern that Elsa's leaving and Bette and Dot's sudden disappearance will affect the show's line-up and possibly ruin the freak show. Elsa is upset that some freaks do not believe her lie that the twins abandoned her while she took them dress-shopping, calling them ungrateful, but Ethel assures her of the freaks' loyalty by telling her of their plans for her upcoming birthday. Elsa promises that she intends to have her monsters join her in Hollywood.

Elsa is delighted with the party the freaks throw, but goes into a fury when she sees them a bit gloomy due to the twins' departure, and threatens to strap one of them onto her wheel if they do not have fun and forget about the twins. Later, she is in bed with Paul, whom she has been having a secret affair with for a while, and rebuffs Paul when she realizes that he is in love with her. As he dresses, she promises to let him see her when she goes to Hollywood and unknowingly insults him when she proposes to continue the affair even after she has a "normal suitor".

Elsa serenades Paul with "September Song", but notices his urgency to leave. She smells his perfume and demands to know who he is seeing, but he rebuffs her, spitefully saying everyone knows she is involved with the twins' disappearance. Outraged, she calls for all the carnies to be awakened and sent to the big top, where she rants to them and points out how she saved them from possibly miserable lives. She tosses the empty boxes from her party, calling all their efforts meaningless and shabby. She later calms down and says they can prove their trust if one of them volunteers for the wheel. Jimmy volunteers, but Paul interjects that it should be him. Elsa manages to throw two knives just short of maiming him, but the third knife hits Paul in the abdomen. She reacts with shock as the freaks attend to Paul.

Paul is with Elsa, smoking opium for the pain as he realizes that Elsa did not call a doctor. Elsa promises she did, but she wouldn't shed a tear for him because of his betrayal and notes that she would no longer be doing the knife act in her show. Penny bursts in, wanting to know how long since the ambulance was called. Elsa says they are in no rush.

Ethel waits for Elsa with a slice of cake while the rest of the carnies are with Paul. Elsa muses that they are a kind of family, revealing her unhappy childhood and lack of a loving family. Elsa says she crafted her own family and says she loved them all, but that Ethel is the sister she deserved. Ethel advises her that no-one trusts Elsa anymore, after the series of calamities. Ethel swears that if she discovers that Elsa has lied about the twins, that she will kill Elsa herself. Elsa's birthday wish as she blows out the candle is to just be loved.[6]

A mutiny is broiling as Elsa is confronted by Jimmy regarding her lies about the twins. Jimmy presents the girls to give their side of the story but Dot calls an audible and weaves a tale that protects Elsa's integrity while securing their position as the starring attraction. In Elsa's elegant tent, she and the twins share a drink and negotiate terms. The girls state that they have no intention of going to Hollywood and want to remain with a thirty-percent box office take. Elsa accuses them of blackmail and sarcastically compliments their growth since her rescue of them from the hospital.[7]

In her quarters, Elsa laments the missing Ma Petite but notices Ethel is not so mournful. Ethel tells her longtime friend that she almost believed Elsa's crocodile tears were sincere. Elsa slaps her in response. Ethel retorts that all Elsa cares about is the roar of the crowd and hates someone stealing her spotlight. Elsa blames Ethel's behavior on drinking and orders her out. Fourteen years of friendship and history have made Ethel realize that she dreads her best friend. Elsa spurns Ethel's accusations of murder, overturning her table. Ethel reminds Elsa that she's not their savior, she's their surrogate mother. Further, Ethel overheard Elsa's cold conspiracy with Stanley to murder the twins, killing any feelings the bearded lady had for her. Elsa wants to bring the twins for testimony, but Ethel has sent them to safety.

Ethel shoots Elsa in one of her legs, leaving a hole through the prosthetic. Elsa chuckles at the incredulous Ethel while telling the story of how she became a freak: immediately after her amputation incident, her lovelorn soldier brought her to Massimo Dolcefino, an artisan prosthetist in wartime and a cinematic prop-maker thereafter. Elsa admits that she fell very much in love with Massimo, and he with her. 

Ethel asks an ashamed Elsa why she never revealed this, but still intends to halt Elsa's callous methods. Elsa thinks that Ethel intends to kill her, but Ethel instead intends to kill herself, feeling that she has nothing to live for. Quickly their interplay shows changes in plans: Elsa intends to kill Ethel (seemingly by poisoning a drink) before the bearded woman can change her mind, and Ethel (sensing this) turns the gun on her onetime friend. In fact, Elsa expertly throws a knife into her would-be killer's forehead. Elsa looks on in horror at her own murderous actions. She and Stanley collaborate on staging a scene in which Ethel's body could be found without suspicion. Later, her introduction of a new troupe member raises Jimmy's ire that their "family" is breaking down around her, no matter how many replacements she brings in.[8]

Paul and some others decide to revenge Ethel and kill Elsa, but Bette and Dot warn her so she can escape and Elsa sells the circus to Dandy.

In 1960 Hollywood, Elsa becomes famous for her groundbreaking "Elsa Mars Hour" and her gold recording albums. She receives her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She marries Michael Beck, her supporter. Michael brings the network's VP for publicity to discuss a spread for Parade magazine about a Halloween performance, but Elsa refuses it. She comes home to see Massimo, who worked in the US Army in the past years. Elsa tells she is bored and lonely, surrounded by sycophants and a cheating husband. She asks Massimo to run away with her, as she wants to spend the rest of her life with her soulmate.  Massimo confesses that to grow old with her has always been his dream, but the dream came too late, as he has a terminal illness and has only a month to live.

Later Michael comes with Mr. Gable who tells Elsa that her pornographic films have been discovered, and are to be written about in the media. Elsa also finds out that all of the freaks have been murdered. Being confronted by Mr. Gable with a morals clause in her contract, implying that her show will be canceled due to the scandal, she agrees to a farewell Halloween performance after all.

The Halloween performance summons Edward Mordrake, and his troupe of dead freaks, including Twisty the Clown. Mordrake stops Elsa's performance and notes that she summoned him as an act of suicide. Elsa begs for him to take her. Edward kills her but tells her that she does not belong with them.

Elsa awakens back at her freak show, where all the previously dead freaks are present. Ma Petite welcomes Elsa into the afterlife. Ethel approaches her, willing to reconcile, and invites Elsa to take the headlining spot on the performance. Elsa expresses remorse at her actions and asks if she needs to pay for her sins, but Ethel happily reminds her of her own remark that stars never pay. Elsa joins her family in a performance for the dead, finally finding peace in her death.


  • Elsa: "Das Leben will gelebt werden. Life is to be lived."
  • Elsa: "Oh, it's fine. It's Lucky Strike. It's good for you."
  • Elsa (to Bette and Dot)
    Tell me. Has anyone tasted your cherry pie?
  • Elsa (to waitress)
    Oh darling, it's on the house...stars never pay.
  • Elsa (to Penny)
    My monsters, those people you call depraved, are the beautiful, heroic ones.
  • Elsa: "You're in a freak show now! My freak show!"
  • Elsa: "I have survived because I know one must be willing to destroy anyone, anything, even the ones you love to keep the gods in check."
  • Elsa: "My talent has been known to render men speechless, but you'll have to get over it if we are going to work together."
  • Elsa: "Adoration, affection, idolization-- I am a performer, I had felt them all in droves. But when this strange-looking little one looked at me, it was the first time I had ever felt unconditional love."
  • Elsa (to Edward Mordrake)
    Take me. I'm the biggest freak of all.
  • Elsa: "You know my motto: always leave them wanting more."


  • This is the fourth character to be portrayed by Jessica Lange. For a complete list of her characters, see Cast. Lange's portryal of Mars earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film and a Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie.
  • Elsa Mars is the third character to have passed on to a blissful afterlife. The first being Adelaide Langdon, the second being Twisty, the fourth being Donovan and the fifth, Nan.
    • It is unknown how Elsa was able to make it to Heaven despite her sinful misdeeds, something which Elsa herself questioned. It is possible that her redemption at the end where she realizes she cared for the freaks helped tip the scales in her favor and allowed her to enter Heaven.
  • It is possible that Elsa's surname, Mars, is an anglicized form of the German surname, März, which she could have changed/anglicized when she immigrated to America after leaving Berlin. Such anglicization was common after World War II by Germans who wished to distance themselves from the actions of Hitler and the Nazis. März is the German word for the month of March.
  • Elsa Mars has some resentment towards Marlene Dietrich, a famous German actress who distanced herself from Nazi Germany. Interesting enough, in an interview with Hollywood Reporter, Ryan Murphy said that "Jessica Lange has always wanted to play a Marlene Dietrich figure, and now she gets to."[9] The two, in fact, share some similarities.
  • It is probably more than coincidence that the character shares her name with her signature number "Life on Mars?", though it is unknown which was inspired which.
    • Also, the blue pastel suit Elsa wears while performing "Life on Mars?" is identical to the one David Bowie wore for the original video for the song.
  • The line "No one's gonna take my soul away" from the song "Gods & Monsters" that she performed indicated that Edward Mordrake did not collect her soul in the end.
  • She is one of three characters - the other being Jimmy Darling and Fräulein Elsa's Cabinet of Curiosities (Amazon Eve) - to appear in all episodes of Freak Show.

Associated Characters[]

Massimo Dolcefino[]

Massimo Dolcefino is the prosthetist who crafts Elsa Mars' prosthetics after she lost her legs due to amputation. He is a character in Freak Show portrayed by Danny Huston.

Massimo was born in Italy and made a career providing prosthetics to veterans from the first World War. He emmigrated to Germany to work as a carpenter in films. He rescued Elsa in 1932 after her legs were amputated during the filming of a snuff film, and he crafted her wooden prosthetic legs to help her recover from the amputation. Elsa and Massimo fell in love and decided to leave Germany for America together, however, he first wanted to confront those who amputated her, including Dr. Hans Grüper. He took his revenge on everyone else involved in the film, however Gruper captured Massimo and tortured him repeatedly until a high ranking SS commander freed him to craft bookshelves.

After the war, in 1947 he traveled to America and began helping the U.S. military build decoy houses to test their atomic bombs. He wrote to Elsa but she did not respond. Although he still loved Elsa, due to the tortures he endured (both mentally and physically), he cannot bring himself to go after her.

In 1953, Elsa sends for Massimo to come to Florida so he can craft Jimmy Darling a new pair of hands. Elsa admits that she would have married him, had they not been separated.  Massimo comes to Elsa's side at once, without question. Jimmy is surprised at the strong feeling between the two, and inquires why they are not together. Massimo confesses that Gruper took away his "humanity" indicating that he may have been rendered impotent due to the tortures.

Seven years later Elsa, now a famous television star, arranges one last visit with him in Hollywood. He commends her accomplishments, but she says she is lonely and wants to be with him. She asks if anyone still loves her and he declares he always has. She asks him to run away with her, but he reveals that he is terminally ill due to a disease in his lungs and only has a month to live.  

The loss of everyone she loved, including the impending loss of Massimo, leads Elsa to commit suicide on Halloween night.


  • Massimo is the second character portrayed by Danny Huston. For a complete list of his characters, see Cast.
  • Massimo is noticably absent from Elsa's afterlife in the finale, as he still had a month to live. The implication being that once he passes, he will join her.
  • Elsa acts as a foil to Dandy. Both commit acts that make the freaks question whether they should allow her to continue being their employer, but while Elsa eventually decides she cares more about the freaks than she does the money she makes from them, Dandy Mott himself makes it clear to the freaks that he does not care about them all, and is only concerned about the money he will make from their services. And eventually, he decides them to kill them all with the exception of Bette and Dot, who he kidnaps instead.

Michael Beck[]

Michael Beck is Elsa's husband and eventual widower. He is a guest-starring character in Freak Show portrayed by David Burtka.

Michael and Elsa met when she first came to Hollywood and collapsed in frustration at not being able to meet an executive.  Michael came out of his office and helped her up. The two struck up a friendship that turned into romance, he eventually becoming both her producer and husband.

Their marriage did not remain happy for long, as both Michael and Elsa had affairs outside the marriage.  He was surprised to learn how Elsa had really lost her legs, as she had lied and claimed it was from a train accident. Elsa's contract was about to be terminated and her marriage about to end when she indirectly commits suicide on Halloween.