The most successful horror movies pale in box office to marginally successful films of other genres. Horror video games will never break sales records set by first-person shooters. And horror novels will generally be relegated to lower places on the bestsellers lists. This column is not going to say that horror doesn’t have it’s hits. It’s just that, in the grand scheme of things, in comparison to other genres, horror fans are generally left Scared Hitless.
Over the last few years, we’ve been able to witness cable television taking more and greater risks with programming. These risks have created shows with a higher polish, more recognizable actors, and a greater willingness to explore genres that often get pushed to the premium channels. In many ways, a lot of this success can be attributed to the USA Network, which was one of the first to really take a splash on this level, but definite credit has to be given as well to AMC, FX, and others who have picked up the ball and kept it moving forward, despite a seemingly higher and higher demand for reality programming.
This willingness to take risks has really helped out the horror genre. Just off the top of my head, three different cable-based shows have spawned from horror, and all have received certain levels of acclaim. The oldest, and best known, of them is of course, The Walking Dead. The new kid on the block is The Strain. But what about the middle child? To really see why that middle child has been able to stand on its own, one truly needs to return to where it all began. While the time of freaks is upon us, we need to turn back the clock to late 2011, and revisit the season that started it all. It’s time to tell a good old-fashioned
AMERICAN HORROR STORY
When looking at how the show began, it almost seems like it was destined to fall apart before the word “boo”. True, the creators had previously worked on the highly successful-for-cable Nip/Tuck, which wouldn’t seem to be too much of a departure from the horror genre, but they also went on to create Glee, which is in incredibly different style of program. And yet, something about American Horror Story has resonated. Perhaps it’s the powerhouse performances given by some of the actors. Maybe it’s the fact that, while some of the faces remain the same, the locales, situations, and overall vibe from year-to-year is different. Either way, American Horror Story captured the attention of its audience early on, and has been able to survive even through weaker times.
In fact, it was the first season, later subtitled “Murder House”, that was an almost perfect opportunity to capture lightning in a bottle. The story of the first season is largely a haunted house yarn, with the overarching theme being one of dealing with infidelity. By blending the (unfortunately) familiar with a favorite style of storytelling, AHS succeeded in providing a show that was engaging, and has proven to have staying power.
The story revolves around a couple of sets of characters, with not as they appear to be over the course of the telling. In true ghost story fashion, pieces of information are parceled out as the storyteller sees fit, leading to moments where dropping just the right detail changes all of the tale that came before it. The main characters are the Harmon family, new to town and looking for a chance to revitalize their marriage, after the birth of a stillborn child, and his affair with one of his students. The Harmons are played by Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton, and Taissa Farmiga, and the actors work to showcase the excitement over being given a second chance, while displaying the dread over being haunted by events from their past. Their neighbors, Constance (Jessica Lange, in a powerhouse performance) and Addie (Jamie Brewer), drop in constantly, and often at the most inopportune moments. Violet (Farmiga) gets regular visits from a boy named Tate (Evan Peters), who starts out as just another patient of her father’s before he develops feelings for her. Of course, there’s the housekeeper, the gay couple, the spurned lover, and the man who delivers cryptic messages to Ben (McDermott). That’s just scratching the surface, and yet, while many of these characters are painted in broad strokes, there’s enough familiarity with them to draw the audience in. American Horror Story‘s first season didn’t really work in the language of subtlety, but rather concealed truths until later moments, but that didn’t lessen the impact.
In many ways, the character that’s the most complex, and the one that seems to be somewhat of a surrogate for the house itself, is the housekeeper, Moira. Moira’s existence as one of the ghosts of the house isn’t kept hidden for long, as she alternates between her appearance at the time of death (Frances Conroy), and a younger version, often used to seduce men (Alexandra Breckenridge). Moira stands out as the only entity truly concerned with Vivien (Britton) throughout the season, and she truly acts as “housekeeper”, doing what she can to make the house agreeable for those she approves of. Her initial distrust of Ben is completely valid, and, it is only when he actually makes a change in his life that he is even allowed to see her in her more matronly form.
Of course, there are adversaries, most notably a monstrous spirit lurking in the basement, but most of the real opposition for the characters comes from within themselves. Ben struggles with his desires and infidelity, complicated by his mistress following the family across the country. Vivien is forced to contend with her own perceived shortcomings. And Violet is left battling depression coupled with the belief that her parents don’t even realize that she exists half of the time. The characters aren’t given much chance to rest easy, but that’s because the hauntings that are really affecting them are all coming from inside.
At its heart, the story presented in the first season of American Horror Story is an all-too familiar one for many. A family is struggling to find a way to reconnect after tragedy and infidelity shook them to the core. But try they will, even if it means moving across the country, into a house that was the home of a recent murder/suicide. Okay, that last part is what sets the story off on its original horror path, and it’s a good way to hook the audience. After all, the horror genre is rife with tales of unfulfilled spirits, forced to wander eternity in their former homes. Violent deaths are more prone to create these sorts of experiences, so putting the family in a house sure to have ghosts will draw the audience in.
However, in all truth, the ghosts really are background, with the exception of Moira and Tate. Most of the other spirits exists to deliver some sort of message, or even make an attempt to continue their previous lives. The living are the ones that cause all of the trouble in AHS, whether it’s Hayden following Ben to continue to throw their affair in his face, Constance regularly poking her nose into the Harmon’s affairs, or Violet falling victim to some fairly standard teenage drama with an extra helping of made-for-TV drama. Yes, it’s the ghosts that really make things bad for Vivien, but even they were helped by her own actions.
The story was paced out to keep a steady drip of information flowing; enough to keep the audience coming back, but not too much to make them bow out from it becoming too fantastical. This is even more impressive when you think about the amount of story that was packed into the 12 weeks the first season ran. No, not every episode was stellar, but the show was gripping enough that you want to see how it all ends. Showing flashbacks for the house also helped establish the story and keep it somewhat grounded, as hard to believe as that may be. As for the ending, in true campfire ghost story fashion, it’s technically left unresolved, and it should be. Sometimes, the best stories are the ones that allow the audience to write the final chapters in their imagination.
Due to the fact that American Horror Story is shown on FX, instead of something like HBO, there’s a certain need to avoid truly gruesome death scenes. However, it’s not like the show pulled all of their punches. However, even when the death’s weren’t gruesome, they did serve another purpose; some were karmic. Larry’s death was deserved because of how (and why) his life intersected with his killer. Hayden is a victim both of circumstances, and her own clear willingness to sacrifice all others just to secure her own happiness. As for deaths that don’t fit either category? Everyone knows that a good ghost story needs victims, and AHS provided its fair share.
As has been stated before, the overarching theme behind American Ghost Story: Murder House is dealing with infidelity. How does it change and/or destroy you? In the long run, the Harmons are able to fight through their issues, but it isn’t without cost. In many ways, wrapping infidelity inside of the horror genre in this way allows an even broader picture to be painted. Much like how the 80’s had messages about how underage drinking and premarital sex would get you killed, AHS taps into the concept and says that extramarital sex will not only get you killed, but it will get your entire family wiped out along the way.
While far from a perfect show, American Horror Story: Murder House had enough to keep bringing me back. It sufficiently underscored how bad choices can haunt you down the road, much the same way that we all deal with the repercussions of our mistakes. It brought back into the cultural view the fantastic Jessica Lange, and it provided enough interest to make me curious for a second season. The subsequent seasons have definitely been hit or miss, but there’s just something about being able to have a weekly injection of a televised campfire story that keeps me coming back. It really, when it all gets boiled down to the bare bones, that’s exactly what AHS is; a ghost story being broken up into multiple segments, and broadcast on television. If only all of our ghost stories could have such staying power.