A Funhouse of Phantoms, Sadistic Miscreants and Magic – and What I Consider to be the Thrill and Appeal of American Horror Story
Ed. Note: Our “Love Story” feature encourages writers to tell the story behind their love for their favorite movie, band, or television show. Today, Kat writes about American Horror Story.
I was groomed to love American Horror Story.
In my earliest childhood years, my father had a room devoted entirely to his radio disc jockey equipment and records. He would sit in that room and play albums for hours, and I would sit and listen. A few things from his mantuary remain vivid in my memory today. Specifically, I will always remember the fear evoked from the first few seconds of “Living in the Plastic Age” by the Buggles, which my dad would play in heavy rotation. And I will forever be able to recall the disturbing Evil Dead poster he had tacked to the wall. Indeed, deep in the cellar of my mind-cabin remains a four-year-old child’s skewed magnification of this poster and the eerily echoed vocals, cardiac thumping and alarms in that song.
A portrayal of what would result in meshing this poster and song memory:
My dad enjoyed the macabre, which meant throughout my childhood I witnessed a considerable number of horror films. A few of the films included in my viewing experience were: the Hammer Dracula films, The Amityville Horror (1979), Phantasm, Poltergeist, Creepshow, Night of the Creeps and George A. Romero’s Dead series (up to Day of the Dead). As an impressionable child, my mind was Silly Putty and when peeled from these films I was left with stretched and distorted clips of what I had perceived.
Nightmares ensued and frightening images were permanently chiseled into my imagination, which explains why I try to limit my exposure to films in this genre. Still, on occasion I am drawn to them by an inherent curiosity and craving for adrenaline.
As an adult I still experience nightmares, even if I try to scrub away any evidence of ghastly images with a soapy mix of Gilmore Girls and Lois and Clark before bedtime. I attribute this to being an extremely visual learner. Demented images cling to me like a branch brier to fabric.
Initially, I didn’t have any interest in watching American Horror Story (AHS).
Of course, I was primarily basing my judgment on the show’s title, but I included in my verdict my sensitivity to horror content. I casually shrugged at the mention of watching this show. However, the illusively bizarre promotional teasers matched with my innate nagging inquisitiveness and fluency in the horror genre would eventually win me over. Therefore, I began with the first episode of the first season on the night of the show’s premiere.
A video compilation of season one teasers:
As promised by its intentionally vague title, the show’s first season told a tale intended to scare, scandalize and generate feelings of terror. The first season (now referred to as Murder House) incorporated horror elements ranging from suggestively suspenseful and paranormal to physically gory. In later seasons, this tradition continues with alien abductions, exorcisms, psychopaths, voodoo queens and witches. Essentially, all horror story clichés are potential AHS fuel. Delving deeper, the show confronts common fears as well as controversial ones – infidelity, abuse of power, religious persecution, immoral medical practices, aging, loss of loved ones, dying—and so on.
Additionally, AHS’s format works wonderfully for me. The folks behind AHS keep things fresh with new storylines sprinkled with a few new actors each season. I am easily bored and quickly lose interest in a show that sticks with a predictable format from week to week. Seldom does a show have the ability to hold my attention completely, but with a new story development each season, this one does. Incidentally, True Detective has adopted a similar format and is another one of my current favorite shows.
*Warning: some spoilers follow!*
Another draw to American Horror Story is the thrill of the unexpected. I love/hate shows that keep me on edge and keep me guessing. On AHS, I feel that a good portion of the guessing part relies heavily on the untrustworthiness of the show’s characters. For example, in Murder House, I was rather shocked at the unveiling of the character inside the black rubber suit. And in Asylum, I was wrecked when Lana’s first real chance at escape was terminated by the revelation of the real Bloody Face (even though I suspected that one). It’s that kind of eye-opening and uncompromising edge pushing that keeps me tuning it.
AHS is not only able to entice me each week with a promise of surprise but also has my undivided attention. I feel that watching AHS is comparable to playing a game. Every movement, articulated line and action may contain meaning or clues regarding the direction and ending of the show. Actually, I should mention in the last few episodes of each season the creators toss in hints regarding the topic of the following season.
For me and I suspect others, another part of AHS’s appeal relies heavily on the ability of the cast, and this show always promises a lineup of talented actresses and actors. I believe I only have to scarcely mention Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, James Cromwell, Joseph Fiennes, and Angela Bassett. Inarguably, these people are phenomenal at their trade and are, as expected, convincing and transformative in this show.
Personally, I think Jessica Lange has been consistently astonishing, while Sara Paulson and Zachary Quinto BLEW MY MIND with their work in Asylum. Notably, throughout all three seasons there have been memorable performances by Evan Peters, Francis Conroy and Lily Rabe. Each of these artists breath exuberance into some truly vicious villains and intricate characters. And Coven is made even more magical with guest appearances by Stevie Nicks. THE Stevie Nicks, man! Need I say more? My point—the cast of AHS is always spectacular, always enticing, and a valid reason to tune in and spectate.
Really, what I’ve written here is only a selection of colors on a palette of what would eventually become a painting conveying my connection with and love for American Horror Story—I purposely neglected any discussion involving symbolism, themes, the female characters, the show’s opening theme, music, camera angles and movements, and the show’s flaws. I could go on.
AHS isn’t even remotely close to the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. Actually, The Walking Dead tends to promote more nightmares because zombies critically scar me. Still, American Horror Story shocks, horrifies, exhilarates—and prompts me to observe and analyze. When I watch a show, I watch with the hope that I will be entertained and sometimes challenged. AHS does both. Ultimately, where AHS is concerned—I know dead does not mean DEAD, I know the question of “Who will triumph and who survives?” will be a surprise, and I know that around each bend lies the possibility of something unexpected. I enjoy speculating and engaging with this show.
Basically, I think films and shows classified as scary will always have a certain appeal to me. After all, I was programmed to love them.
Do I want to watch horror films or shows every day? Certainly not. In fact, I hardly ever seek out new films or shows in this genre. Further, I am not embarrassed to admit that when I’m home alone I avoid watching scary films or shows; because I know watching would result in unnecessary anxiety, where showers hasten with wide-eyed panic and ordinary stairs become belligerent pathways riddled with cracks and spirits.
However, I don’t mind revisiting the films and shows that I’ve already watched. Typically, I prefer to do this with a friend and with the lights on.
I suppose I have a slight sentimental attachment to the horror films and shows from my past, and I now include American Horror Story in that family. For all of the reasons I’ve discussed, I will continue to come back to American Horror Story – and I imagine I will continue to love it.