Happy Halloween! To mark this hallowest of eens, I tossed around a couple of ideas for a post before settling on a look at that spoopiest of shows, American Horror Story. AHS is the one of the few horror TV shows currently on air; admittedly, the genre may lend itself better to 90-minute movies, so the idea of a “horror show” is much less common than “science fiction show”. It’s been fascinating seeing how the genre is adapted to a weekly serial drama. As part of my celebrations for Halloween, which is a month-long festival for me, I started re-watching American Horror Story from the very beginning, so it would be fresh in my mind. I had plenty of critiques in mind already, but the re-watching experience also led me to something of an epiphany.
Hopefully this post is a treat, but the trick is that there are some spoilers.
First off, let’s look at how AHS stacks up to our LGG&F values. I certainly wouldn’t call it a feminist show; we’ve had characters that fill hurtful stereotypes like “the psycho ex”, for example (Hayden in Season 1, but by gods, did Kate Mara do a phenomenal job in the role), not to mention mystical pregnancies in the first and second seasons. However, if you like stories featuring complex women who aren’t just Strong Female Characters, or damsels in distress, or Manic Pixie Dream Girls, but who instead often inhabit very morally gray areas, this show has much to offer. The female characters on AHS are almost always more numerous and much more interesting than the male characters. This was probably most true on Season 3, Coven, with extremely (magically) powerful women, and extremely boring male characters. Unfortunately, that season was also the worst when it came to the women being motivated by some pretty juvenile ideas of “love” and relationships to men. Disappointing.
However, overall, the women totally dominate the show, and it’s great to see storylines focusing on women who aren’t just twenty year old TV sweethearts; Connie Britton, Frances Conrory, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, and of course Jessica Lange are middle-age to older women starring in a very popular show in an industry that often seems to be so ready to discard actresses once they reach a certain age. In a mirroring (or perhaps purposeful commentary?) of this media-based depreciation of the aging woman, Coven‘s trifecta of Delphine LaLaurie, Fiona Goode, and Marie Laveau (Kathy Bates, Jessica Lange, and Angela Bassett, respectively) were all engaged in nefarious activities to maintain or regain youth and vitality, though I would hardly say the show was encouraging their behavior; torturing slaves and using their blood for skin salve, attempting to kill your successor-to-be, or delivering innocent souls to a dark deity were never applauded. In fact, even in such a morally ambiguous show, it was clear that the other characters disapproved, and all these women truly attained by their great cruelties was their own undoing by striving so hard after an ill-intentioned goal.
The show is by and large White American Horror Story, though there was an important Black recurring character in Season 1. Season 3 did change this a bit, as race was an important backdrop for the tensions between a New Orleans Voodoo clan and descendants of the Salem witches, and we finally had Black starring roles, as well as more Black supporting roles. Asian and Latin@ representation is virtually nil, and there’s the irony that the Native Americans have had no part to play in an “American Horror Story”. While Coven’s overall interpretation of “Voodoo” and Papa Legba in particular really bothered me, I was very pleased that they never once used the word “Wicca” to refer in any way to the witchcraft being practiced by the Salem descendants on the show. Remember, not all witchcraft is Wicca, but in pop culture “Wiccan” is often used as a convenient adjective for any form of witchcraft, many of which have nothing to do with the religion and practice of Wicca, like those found on Charmed and Buffy.
In terms of non-racial diversity, one of the most pleasant surprises of the AHS cast has been Jamie Brewer, a young woman with Down’s Syndrome, a segment of the population who rarely gets to be featured on TV. She had a short-lived, but important role in the first season, and was a main character in Season 3, playing Nan, one of the young witches, seen as an equal with her compatriots. Disability rights activists would be more worried about the current season, Freak Show—some of the main, totally able-bodied, repertoire cast are playing characters with some kind of physical oddity, requiring prosthetics and digital editing. To Ryan Murphy’s credit, however, he endeavored to actually include many disabled actors to round out important roles in the carnival, including but not limited to Jyoti Amge, who has achondroplasia, and Mat Fraser, who was born with phocomelia of the arms. Even though the theme of Freak Show is about the discrimination such people faced at the hands of a misunderstanding and merciless society (a variation on the old “The most normal-looking are the most monstrous” trope), I do question Murphy’s decision to create a season with such a setting in the first place, knowing that the biggest characters were going to be played by his recurring cast of able-bodied actors.
But AHS’s biggest problem, plot/concept-wise, is: it’s not good at being original. I guess the title should have been a tip-off: you can’t get much more generic than “American Horror Story”. Now, I understand horror is a genre filled with unoringinality: haunted houses, vampires, werewolves, zombies, we’ve seen ’em all dozens of times before. The key is, does a particular work of horror offer anything new? A storyline or twist we haven’t seen before, a new interpretation of a monster, heck, even just a really well executed project that is not particularly original can be entertaining. American Horror Story, unfortunately, falls time and again into tropes.
Season 2 is probably the worst for this, as it mashes so many together; we have nuns who are overly fond of corporal punishment, the devil possessing an innocent ingénue, aliens probing and impregnating, a mad scientist with a possible Nazi past, and to top it off, a serial killer named “Bloody Face” (just different enough from Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Leather Face to avoid litigation, I guess). Season 3 took us to “Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies”, which sounds suspiciously like Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters—that season they somehow managed to rip off Charmed and The X-Men at the same time. The currently airing Season 4, subtitled Freak Show, is seemingly doomed to some degree of tropiness because these shows were often filled with specific stock acts: each show had its own strongman, bearded lady, tattooed man, Siamese twins, et al. Not to mention that mixing the spooky and supernatural into a carnival side show was the whole point of the 2003 HBO show Carnivàle. In addition, there is a scary killer clown this season, a trope so stereotyped and overdone, real clowns actually spoke up about it.
What makes this even more sad is that, when AHS does make the effort and come up with something original, it’s usually quite interesting. Season 3, a.k.a. Coven, contains one example. Background: the young witches had a kind of magic like Charmed, in which they could cast spells but also each had her own X-Men-like power (okay, that part’s not original, and two of them had very staple powers of telekinesis and clairvoyance). But one of them, Queenie (played by Gabourey Sidibe), had a power I had never seen before. She was often referred to as a “human voodoo doll”, though I would maybe call it something like “empathic transfer”: she had the ability to transfer injuries from herself onto another person. For example, when fellow witch Madison was being mean to her, Queenie stabbed her own hand with a fork—Queenie suffered no harm, but Madison received the pain and wound on her hand. Queenie later uses her power to stop another character who had gone on a shooting rampage by shooting herself and transferring the injury to him, killing him. Now, I’ll never get tired of telekinesis and clairvoyance, but it was super neat to see such a fascinating power I’d never seen before.
Season 1 had by far the most originality of any season thus far. While the basic premise was nothing new—straight couple with teenage daughter move into house they don’t know is haunted—there were definitely original elements. Never had I ever seen a recurring ghost in a full body gimp suit before. Rather than just the one unhappy soul haunting the house, which is most often the case in horror films, there were multiple generations of ghosts, if you will: from as far back as the 1920s to as recent as the 2010s, and everything in between. But the most unique thing of the season, and possibly of the show, was the ghost of Moira, the housekeeper. When seen by the women of the house, she appeared as a woman probably in her 60s or so; when seen by the male lead, she appeared as a sulky, sexy twenty-something. I was utterly enthralled by this: I had never seen anything remotely like it, and the character was brought to life by wonderful performances by actresses Frances Conroy (Moira the elder) and Alexandra Breckenridge (Moira the younger). The whole idea behind it was a pointed and telling commentary on the male gaze, and it continues to be one of my favorite things about the whole show.
All in all, I recommend this show, but enjoying it is contingent on a few things. First, you must be okay with gore and sex; there’s a reason there’s a “viewer discretion” before every episode. Next, even more importantly, be forewarned the gore and sex is not the only thing that will offend you—this is a show filled with bad people treating other people badly. One of the biggest horrors on American Horror Story is not the jump scares of ghosties, but the inhumaneness of humans. I have heard bad things about Ryan Murphy’s show The New Normal and its offensiveness though I have never seen it, and I know some people raises similar objections to AHS. I can say that in AHS, when a character says something offensive or bigoted, it is unfortunately there to shock, but it is also to further illustrate the fact that said character is not a good person. In fact, I would even say there is restraint in the writing; this isn’t a show about a sophisticated, sensitive suburban gay couple or your kindly but at times racist grandma from the Deep South who should know better—there are some truly despicable human beings portrayed on this show, and when you have characters as vile as some of the ones on AHS, particularly those from older time periods, I’m surprised they’re not more offensive more often.
My biggest epiphany on re-watching was this: to really enjoy the show you can’t go in with too many expectations. AHS is a show you have to take as it comes, on its own terms. Coven for example had quite a different feel than the previous season, Asylum, so some fans were put off. For me, as a horror fan, I at times thought there was too much interpersonal drama; I’ve sometimes called the finale episodes “American Drama Story” because there was often much more emotional dialogues than scary scenes. In horror movies, characters don’t usually get a chance to develop much or have deep interpersonal dramas; however, in AHS, the characters are really the highlight; their personal lives just happen to intersect with horrific happenings. Re-watching it without my horror movies expectations, I still enjoyed the thrills, but I really let myself be drawn into the characters’ stories. Even when the writing felt subpar, most of the actors are truly exceptional, and I found myself really caring about the characters’ lives and dilemmas.
I hope this has prepared you to better enjoy the perturbing and provocative American Horror Story, should you choose to watch it. If you have already seen it, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!