For this long time horror fan, American Horror Story has been a breath of fresh air. The genre has been struggling for a long, long time as horror fans soon get comfortable with the shock, schlock and special effects used to generate the scare we’re all looking for. The genre has slid into cliché many times in its history: too many lumbering monsters in the 1940s, too many heaving cleavages in the 1950s, too much repetition of stalk and slash in the 1980s and too much industrialised torture/too many remakes and re-visionings of classics in the 2000s. Horror regularly needs innovators to breathe new life into the genre. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk did just that with American Horror Story in 2011.
The first season took advantage of the revitalisation of adult drama on cable television and provided the audience with a story that was disturbing and genuinely unsettling. Setting Murder House in bright and sunny Los Angeles and weaving in stories from L.A.’s history, as well as America’s recent past, the show took a new approach to horror’s role in dealing with the fears and concerns of the producing culture. There was a confidence in Murder House that allowed it to deal with adult topics in adult ways – even though at times this got the programme into trouble with commentators of many political persuasions. Its frank depiction of sex and sexual relationships had the potential to shock and when it dealt with difficult topics, such as the attempt to depict how ‘the male gaze’ objectifies women and reduces their power allowed it to be criticised for creating sexualised and objectified representations.
The American horror stories dealt with in Murder House included family relationships and reproduction, fidelity and trust, problem teens, home invasion, recreational drugs and school shootings, as well as illegal abortions, gay marriage and the failure of psychoanalysis. It packed a lot in and it did so with style, panache and the nerve to present controversial topics and images head on.
The second season packed in even more. Set in the 1960s it showed a culture moving away from long standing traditions in organised religion (the Catholic Church) to be replaced by a reliance on the ‘religion’ of psychoanalysis (the lead male in Murder House was a psychoanalyst – no coincidence surely). Asylum dealt with attitudes to homosexuality and gave us serial killers, exorcism, Nazi doctors, aliens and Anne Frank! It ended by bringing us up to date and critiqued the modern media and its use of sensationalised, human interest stories and, like the first season unpicked elements of the contemporary culture and showed that this is where horror is located.
Combine the approach with some truly innovative direction, wonderful performances and deeply disturbing story lines, American Horror Story is busy revitalising the horror genre by giving it back to the grown-ups and not being afraid to delve into subjects that remain taboo in most mainstream drama.
Coven started well with its modern setting tied closely to a horrific aspect of American history. Kathy Bates, Angela Basset and Jessica Lange pitched their performances brilliantly managing to balance elements of emotional realism with some of the most outrageous, ridiculously camp costumes, dialogue and situations. This season, like previous ones, touched on topics rarely dealt with in other media texts: sexual abuse, incest, date rape and religious mania were all on the agenda. The first half of the season dealt with the potentially destructive nature of maternal relationships. Mothers were central and they were generally problematic but they too had their issues. This season’s most radical representation was that of ageing, disease and (natural) death. Amongst the magic, ghosts, torture and trips to hell, the core of the story has been an elderly woman railing against the indignities of age and the imminent decay that comes with her cancer diagnosis. Fiona was never a sympathetic character but her pointless railing against her own unavoidable decline and demise allowed her story to be tinged with tragedy. Her unrelenting fight against death isolated her from her child and her legacy but spoke of the way older women are often dismissed as it is perceived that they cannot offer youth, beauty and vitality. The beauty industry relies on women fearing the onset of ‘visible signs of ageing’ to sell its ‘cures’ and Fiona personified the response to being replaced by the young and beautiful. As a ‘younger model’ prepared to replace her as the Supreme, Fiona could feel herself becoming invisible and irrelevant and so she was prepared to do anything to become immortal.
Sadly, this season seemed to get distracted by its multiple story-lines and themes. An early idea was to bring the coven into conflict with Voodoo culture as a metaphor for America’s problematic history (and present) with race relations. Delphine acted as a representative of a particular attitude and a set of values that, whilst updated to fit modern sensibilities, still exists in some form in the US… the war on drugs and the US penal system are both often argued to be racially divisive. There is a black man in the White House (however appalling Delphine finds that idea) but there are more black men than white in US prisons. Aside from the shooting in the salon and its visual juxtaposition with Delphine ‘learning a lesson’ from the civil rights movement, the racial issue was raised but not fully explored. Similarly, the evangelical Christian neighbour could have led to an interesting discussion about dominant belief systems and the marginalisation of any alternative belief systems (including the non-acceptance of non-religious belief) but the story line fizzled out and was absorbed into the ‘abusive mother’ theme. Even the male witch hunters, the shady organisation of men who felt the need to control women who threatened their power, was a plot point that was hurriedly dispensed with.
Visually there is no more beautiful (if often in a grotesque way) and challenging show. American Horror Story is prepared to be creative in its presentation of scenes, images, locations and gore. It doesn’t shy away from taboo subjects and themes. All three seasons have been radical in the way they have presented women, women’s relationships and feminine themes – motherhood, birth, sexuality, ageing… all topics you’d be hard pressed to see discussed with such visceral frankness anywhere else. American Horror Story is a long way from perfect but I for one am looking forward to being entertained, frustrated, shocked and appalled by season 4…. and my money’s on American Horror Story: Red Scare… Cold War paranoia, Roswell, communist witch-hunts and mad scientists!!
More of my thoughts on American Horror Story can be found in Media Magazine.