We live in an era of more is more, from books to television to movies, the general consensus seems to be that, when it comes to the horror genre, showing viewers everything is the way to go. If it doesn’t shock, it isn’t scary, and the best way to scare is through the magic of special effects. Graphic is the name of the game and nobody seems to care if the audience ends up losing their popcorn halfway through the show.
I actually like quite a bit in the horror genre. A good scare, especially during certain times of the year, makes me inordinately happy. For the most part, while I may jump during core scenes in a given movie or TV show, it’s rare that the unsettling feeling lasts past the end of the viewing. Scares that stick with me are getting rarer and rarer. The shock and awe approach to brutality and gore is just boring to me and, more than anything, annoying. It seems like rushing to the point that they can start slathering the sets with blood and fake body parts means that there’s no need to build a story anymore.
Last year, FX started airing a series called “American Horror Story”. Dylan McDermott was one of the stars, which had me at least curious to watch it. The ad campaign was stylish and disturbing and didn’t actually give much of any idea as to what the show was really going to be about.
Horror has always been a mechanism for allegory as social commentary, from early morality plays all the way up through “Frankenstein” and “Night of the Living Dead” and beyond. Human nature, consumerism, the hubris of science, it all gets paraded onto the stage in wonderfully trumped up stories that exaggerate the circumstances and the consequences. “American Horror Story” is no exemption to the idea. It is, I think, a particularly intriguing entry into that grand tradition.
The first season, at face value, was about a far creepier than average haunted house. That can’t be a spoiler, despite the vagueness of the original ad campaign, for anyone who has yet to see that season of the show. It’s now out on DVD. McDermott played a psychiatrist whose family is unraveling around him. They relocate to a restored mansion, a beautiful home that they purchased for well below its value. Part of the fun of the series is the fact that a seriously underpriced property would not have felt as suspicious as it should have. After all, the American economy has slumped and real estate values are declining.
The cast is amazing, McDermott is joined by Connie Britton, Jessica Lange, and Zachary Quinto. While Lange’s creepy, failed starlet neighbor, Constance, stole the show and provided some of the most disturbing and horrifying scenes, the younger members of the cast proved to be the ones who offered the most depth and maturity. The storyline involving Violet, played by Taissa Farmiga, and Tate, played by Evan Peters, was the more wrenching story emotionally. Violet was the daughter of the couple who moved into the house and she was the one who seemed to be the most adult about everything going on around her. As the house revealed itself to be more and more sinister, Violet’s reactions were the ones that were the most poignant.
Throughout the series, the writers played with themes of family and betrayal. Basic need factored heavily into the story, need for family, need for success, the need for acceptance. It was all spread across story lines for individual characters who were all connected, often through threads they couldn’t seem to view. Some of those connections were tenuous and some were more solid. The plots might have seemed throwaway from time to time until the relevance to the more modern threads were revealed.
“American Horror Story” is intended to be an anthology series. Each season is a miniseries, containing a full story arc over its episodes. The format allows them to tell a serialized, complex story without creating a mythology that will overwhelm someone who missed the previous season. The season ranges between flashbacks and current story lines and brings in a multitude of back stories and motivations.
Certain characters do, of course, come to the forefront, but even the supposedly minor players are better realized and more clearly formed than so many TV shows allow. “American Horror Story” is not a show that leaves its characters to be two dimensional representations of the classic horror genre tropes. The characters have reasons for what they do and a particular viewpoint that, if nothing else, allows for the audience to get a feel for why they made the choices that they did. Nobody in the show just suddenly snaps and goes on a rampage. Instead, they have steadily come undone to a point where the damage they suffered overrode any of their ordinary sensibilities. “American Horror Story” is a remarkable, extended character sketch that tells a satisfying story.
That first season also played extensively with color schemes. In dream sequences, the color palette was full of livid, super-saturated hues that gave those scenes a frantic, fever dream intensity. The flashbacks were grainier and muted, their colors were faded and cooler. In contrast, the modern scenes were subtler, hints of bright color in otherwise mundane earth tones surrounding characters who stood out because they were the most vivid presences on set.
The second season has started airing. Entitled “American Horror Story: Asylum”, it takes place, of course, in the Briarcliff Mental Institution. Some of the actors from the prior season have returned for “Asylum”, notably, Evan Peters and Jessica Lange. Zachary Quinto is given a larger role in this season. “American Horror Story” seems bent on getting fans of the show to get very good at separating an actor from a character that they have inhabited.
This season, Jessica Lange plays the sadistic Sister Jude. She rules Briarcliff with an iron fist and anyone who opposes her is soon confronted with the realities of who deals with the day to day of the asylum. She seems cold, but not calculating. Her path is one of piousness not love. She believes that dedication and routine are the keys to salvation and will cure those patients that can be. It’s a dogma she recites in various incarnations over the course of the first two episodes.
This isn’t to say that she sees no opposition. Her equally sadistic counterpart, Dr. Arthur Arden, does not believe that God is going to heal anyone. Instead, he is firmly dedicated to the conviction that science will cure all of the patients at Briarcliff and is working towards those ends, often through experiments conducted on patients who do not have families that will complain about what has happened to their loved ones.
Joseph Fiennes play Monsignor Timothy Howard, the man who is supposed to be running Briarcliff. He has hired everyone who works there and seems to think that the friction between Dr. Arden and Sister Jude is merely a rivalry brought about due to conflicting interests. Whether he’ll realize that the issues are on a much bigger scale than that remains to be seen.
Kit Walker is one of the patients. Evan Peters gives him a bewildered vulnerability tempered with reserved toughness. Kit is accused of being a serial killer. He naturally claims that he is innocent. The circumstances surrounding the death of his wife have yet to be revealed. Kit’s own memories are jumbled and seem to fit an explanation involving alien abduction, rather than a murder.
“American Horror Story” seems to enjoy putting psychiatrists in the midst of the unexplained. The psychiatrist involved in this season is Zachary Quinto’s Dr. Oliver Thredson. Thredson is less than impressed with the methods of treatment available at Briarcliff and, in the second episode, voiced those opinions rather harshly at Sister Jude.
Men of science being forced to deal with the uncanny has also been a common plot point in “American Horror Story.” A good horror story often makes the characters (and the reader or viewer) doubt their own perceptions of reality. Occam’s Razor cuts deeply and when all that is left is the overturning of rationality, it has a tendency to break people. “American Horror Story” makes them shatter in slow motion. It’s a messy process and it leaves pieces everywhere.
Two episodes into “Asylum” the driving themes seem to be sanity and taboo, especially in regards to sexuality. Religion seems like it will also be getting its turn in the “American Horror Story” limelight as well, especially if it’s highly organized religion. I predict that this season will show characters being driven to insanity by treatments for afflictions they don’t actually have. And, of course, secrets are going to be an enormous factor in the story. Everyone has them, everyone is trying desperately to keep them. None of the secrets thus far revealed to the audience are of the harmless variety.
The look of the show has also changed. It’s a darker, more shadowy show. There is a washed-out green quality to the lighting reminiscent of the paint on institutional walls and there’s a decidedly more sinister feel from the outset. It’s less foreshadowed than it is outright foreboding. Briarcliff is very clearly someplace that no one would want to be and no one would want to visit, except as a viewer from the safety of a comfortable couch in a warm living room, preferably with the ability to stop the show when it gets too uncomfortable to keep watching.
It’s also, most definitely, a show intended for adult audiences. There is solid grounding for the “M” disclaimer that airs throughout the show when it’s on. The writers don’t shy away from either adult language, violence, or sexual situations. This is an adult story taking place in an adult world. It’s not for the squeamish and it’s not for people who don’t want to be scared.