by Paul Duane
Why “American”? Well, there’s nothing more American than owning property. It’s the American Dream, a house and some land surrounded by a fence. Built, as in all the best haunted house stories, on an Indian burial ground. And American Horror Story, series one, is all about decades of murder on a slice of prime West Coast real estate.
I think it’s one of the most original and intriguing TV series in recent years, and one that’s come out of nowhere with a whole new way of representing the horror genre on television.
Here’s the thing: TV doesn’t like anthologies any more. The days of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Alfred Hitchcock Presents… are all over. So what do you do if you love those short, creepy stories about creeps who come to bad ends, and you work in television, and you’re coming off one of the biggest surprise hits of recent years*? You make an anthology show but disguise it as a soapy serial.
Anthologies, however, have to have some sort of a theme. Rod Serling made his shows all about paranoia and characters who discover the world isn’t as it seems. Hitchcock’s series was largely defined by its pitch black sarcasm.
The very American theme of American Horror Story, S1, is the horror of childbirth.
(HERE BE GENERALISED, NON-SPECIFIC SPOILERS, by the way).
I lost count of the characters in AHS who are stillborn, aborted, or were born and then wished they weren’t. There’s also the mother who traumatically miscarries, the mother who has to have her deformed offspring smothered in a mercy killing, the selfish, privileged mother who doesn’t know how to look after her baby until she find it’s been dismembered and re-animated by her mad doctor husband… the one who self-immolates, along with her children, when she realises she’s about to be dumped, the one who may be carrying the Antichrist, and the one who was about to adopt before discovering that their spouse is a compulsive sex cheat.
Then there’s the dead child who finds herself caring for a dying mother she’s only able to visit once a year, on Hallowe’en, leading to another mercy killing.
If you find this sort of thing off-puttingly weird, then the opening credits of AHS – a combination of boilerplate post-Seven serial killer imagery with (seemingly genuine) dead baby photos straight out of Michel Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip – will send you running from the room.
But if you stick with it, and share my fascination with the many strange shapes that the genre can twist itself into in its quest to find new ways to unsettle us, if you dive into the world of AHS, you may see it as the densely-illustrated rollercoaster ride through the history of the genre that (I think) it’s designed to be.
The best possible locus for this kind of thing, as Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick realised in very different ways, is the haunted house with the mysterious history of violent death. Many years ago, a great friend of mine, the late Scottish screenwriter John Brown, wrote a brilliant analysis of The Shining called The Impossible Object, whose argument was that the Overlook Hotel couldn’t possibly contain all the paradoxes that Kubrick and his screenwriter had packed it with. It was designed as a self-cancelling-out compendium of the genre – it’s not just “Jack Torrance is going insane” or “the ghosts are projections from Torrance’s conscience” or “the Overlook belongs to something ancient and evil” – it’s all of the above. And American Horror Story‘s Murder House takes a very conscious leaf from the Overlook’s guest-book.
I think the point at which I realised Falchuk and Murphy’s show was a ground-breaking piece of genre-bending brilliance was the fourth episode, Hallowe’en (Part One). A carefully-crafted teeter-totter of interconnected horrorshows, the story switchbacks between the pasts of two of the Murder House’s previous sets of inhabitants – a drug-addicted ’20s abortionist servicing Hollywood starlets in trouble, and a modern gay couple stuck in negative equity. In the present day, avatars of all these characters (and more) roam the house, some visible, some not.
The current inhabitants – a shrink and his pregnant wife, trying to recover from his cheating and her miscarriage – are dealing with, respectively, a mysterious Burned Man who’s trying to blackmail $1000 out of them for the headshots he needs to kickstart his acting career, and a pregnant former lover/student of the husband, who’s turned up looking to take over his life. And the couple’s ‘troubled’ daughter is falling in love with a Kurt Cobain lookalike who’s blissfully unaware that he shot up his high school with automatic weapons and is, like about six-tenths of the regular cast, a ghost.
And did I mention Elizabeth Short, the unfortunate ‘Black Dahlia’? Or Sal Mineo’s death in a backstreet pickup gone wrong? They’re in here too. All part of the Murder House Mystery Tour of Violent Death.
The gear-changes between these highly loaded stories are negotiated with a hairpin recklessness that’s pretty much the USP of AHS. You just don’t believe that they can pull off this kind of narrative overkill, you wait for the whole thing to come tumbling down, but creepily, it just keeps growing: developing annexes, cellars, previously undiscovered attics. It’s a haunted house of cards.
The character who ties all of the various storylines together is faded Southern belle Constance, who lives next door to the Murder House. Her unhealthy interest in it is due to her key role in its strange history. Jessica Lange has deservedly won awards for her portrayal of a bitter, sharp-tongued character who manages to be both absolutely vile and also terribly affecting.
In the Hallowe’en episode, her reaction to the accidental death of her Down’s Syndrome daughter (who she’s previously referred to dismissively as “the Mongoloid”) is one of the most unforgettable scenes in recent television history – even more so because it’s inexplicable. She tries to drag the dying girl away from the paramedics, off the road and onto the lawn in front of the Murder House, and nobody watching can at this point have any idea that the house and its grounds preserve the spirits of those who die in it. That’s where Constance’s whole dead family lives, and her failure to get her last remaining child into this spooky everlasting rest home will kickstart her into a particularly unpleasant storyline that’s more than a little reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby.
(END OF SPOILERY BIT)
But Rosemary’s Baby is a bit too obvious a reference for this series. How about The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic story of female disempowerment? I read that when I was a kid and it terrified me. It seems to have done the same to Ryan and Falchuk, to the extent that the whole series can be read as a recuperation of the story’s terrifying outcome (one that has a lot in common with Shirley Jackson’s equally iconic Haunting of Hill House) – the entrapment of a woman’s soul for eternity within the walls of a house she hates.
Given that the cast of AHS is top-heavy with interesting and conflicted female characters, it’s not a massive spoiler to say that this outcome befalls one of them. The real surprise is how the show treats it. Falchuk and Murphy’s ending puts a very surprising spin on this feminist nightmare, and displaces the Gilman ending on to one of the story’s put-upon gay characters. That alone should provide material for any number of PhDs on sexual roles in modern narrative.
I’m torn between the impulse to give away some of AHS’s greatest surprises, in a bid to get the reader excited enough to watch this mysteriously overlooked show, and the equally strong impulse to let people discover it the way I did – at first amused by its presumption, then drawn in by the sheer energy of its storytelling, finally amazed and moved by the way it tricks the audience into thinking they’re watching one kind of story, which actually turns out to be something entirely different. It’s not unlike a thirteen-hour-long Rainer Werner Fassbinder movie, in fact, if Fassbinder had moved (as he’d always wanted to) to Hollywood.
The second series, American Horror Story: Asylum, starts on FX this month and I will be hoping that they manage to pull off the magic trick a second time. However, I’m dubious. One of the thrills of the first series was, not to give anything away, its remarkable narrative structure. They can’t pull that one twice but whatever they do, it’s bound to be a high-wire act worth watching. After all, why do you watch a high-wire act – except to see if they fall to the ground?
*the producers of American Horror Story are also the producers of Glee. I manage to ignore this fact most of the time.
American Horror Story season 1 is released on DVD in the UK on 15 October.
Paul Duane is a director/producer of documentaries such as Barbaric Genius as well the occasional drama series. He has yet to make a horror film, though he did do a couple of episodes of Footballers’ Wives, if that counts.