American Horror Story, produced by Twentieth Century Fox Television and entering a second season on FX this spring, is touted by creators Ryan Murphy (of Glee and Nip/Tuck fame) and Brad Falchuk as a "psychosexual thriller,"1 and it delivers on that promise.
It's the sort of classic horror show that's rare these days, employing the tropes, tricks, and turns that horror fans expect, yet enriched with satire, parody, heavy doses of camp, postmodern intertextuality, political incorrectness, and exquisite musical tracks. Mix into the brew brilliant writing and an A-list cast, and we have the formula for the phenomenal success the series garnered in its first season.
Its "Mature Audiences Only" label is well-deserved, however, with most episodes carrying warnings for all three categories that warrant the MA rating: graphic violence, explicit sexual activity, and crude language. One critic says the program "makes The Shining look like The Waltons."2 While American Horror Story is not a show to recommend for viewing, it is one that provides interesting cultural insights upon examination.
The pilot episode introduces the house of horror and its new inhabitants. Ben and Vivien Harmon and their teenaged daughter Violet are moving from Boston to Los Angeles in order to reassemble their broken family, and they purchase the house at, naturally, a bargain-basement price. The move was prompted by Vivien's discovery—in the act—of an affair that Ben, a psychiatrist, was having with one of his students while Vivien was recovering from a late-term miscarriage. Not only Vivien's, but also many other dead babies haunt the lives of those who have lived and died within the walls of this house.
The third episode reveals why babies—born and unborn, living and dead—fill the show. This episode flashes back to 1922 and to the original owner and builder of the house, Dr. Charles Montgomery, surgeon to the stars. (The series includes frequent and humorous jabs at Hollywood lifestyles and values, including the delusions of Hollywood grandeur of one of the leading characters, an aged Southern belle played by Jessica Lange, and a darkly comedic burn victim who extorts money to pay for the head shots he needs for his stage auditions.)
Dr. Montgomery's glamorous and opportunistic wife Nora convinces her husband to perform abortions on young starlets whom she shepherds into the basement clinic of their home. The underground business thrives until the father of one of the aborted children takes revenge by murdering and dismembering the Montgomerys' own infant son. When the increasingly mad doctor restores their child to some sort of life in a ghastly, Frankenstein-ish experiment, the anguished Nora shoots her husband and then herself, leaving their ghosts to haunt the house forevermore. Throughout her afterlife, Nora wanders the rambling home in what she describes as "an eternity, endless days and nights of longing," murmuring, "My baby. Where's my baby? I just want my baby."
Thus the significance of the images with which the show opens each week—jars filled with human fetuses and animals—becomes clear. And in a series built around shock value, the biggest shock of the season is the discovery that the heart of darkness is abortion. In fact, the show portrays abortion so horrifically, and the desire for children so passionately, that pro-choice bloggers have criticized it for promoting a pro-life agenda.
Abortion & Sex
Current cultural conditions being what they are, it's almost reassuring to find abortion presented as, well, horrifying. An interesting turn-of-phrase is offered by Murphy in one interview: "I was supposed to be born on Halloween," he told TV Guide in explaining his lifelong infatuation with the horror genre, but "I didn't come out on my due date."3 It's a small thing, this reference to his yet-unborn-self as an agential "I," but revealing nevertheless. Although identifying as homosexual, Murphy was raised Catholic, went to a Catholic grade school, and said in an interview with National Public Radio that he still attends church.4
The pro-life point is conveyed in subtle ways, too. The prophecy of doom that opens the pilot episode is spoken by a young girl with Down Syndrome who lingers outside the creepy house. One might fear that a show like this would portray such a character mockingly, but not so. The show flashes forward to the present, and the little girl, Adelaide, is now a grown woman. Her mother, Constance (Jessica Lange's character, a role for which she won a Golden Globe award), suggests that if testing had been available when she was pregnant with Adelaide, she would have aborted her.
Given that this line is spoken by the most villainous [living] character in the show, it is clearly meant to align the idea of aborting a disabled child squarely with evil. Adelaide later dies (as do most of the characters in the show), but it is notable that she is the only character whose death is accidental. She is also the only one who, in escaping the house, is not doomed to existence among the living dead.
For her part, Constance is a character complex enough to greatly grieve her daughter's death. In fact, the engine that propels the subplots revolving around each of the couples that inhabit the house—whether in death or life—is the desire to regain a lost child or a lost love—or both.
And because without sex there are no children, the show features a lot of sex. (In fact, this is why I don't watch the show with my father, who has been my horror show buddy since I, like Ryan Murphy, started watching Dark Shadows as a little kid.5) The series depicts sexual activity, rape, and even torture in varying degrees of explicitness. Like everything else in the show, the sex is over-the-top (we are talking about the creator of Nip/Tuck, after all) and more graphic than necessary, even if some of the depictions have thematic value.
For example, some of the sex acts are performed with a silent partner in a mysteriously re-appearing rubber suit. This rubber suit points to a central theme, even though it initially confused viewers like my friends and me, who know nothing about what rubber suits are used for and why. But the show's writers know their audience and material well enough to build answers into the script: one character as puzzled as we were by the rubber suit tells a salesclerk in a sex-toy store that he doesn't "get it," and the salesclerk explains that the suit "dehumanizes a person." And that's the point.
Dehumanization is the horror of American Horror Story: the dehumanization of unborn babies aborted, the dehumanization of spouses betrayed, and the dehumanization of those who commit such acts and find themselves damned to the dehumanized existence of the living dead.
Infidelity & Betrayal
Chief among the living dead who inhabit the house is Constance's son Tate, whose death comes by suicide after he commits a Columbine-style massacre at his high school. Tate reveals that his troubles in life began with his mother's infidelity to his father, who left the family because of it. In the first episode, Tate writes the word "TAINT" in block letters, and the word reinforces a theme. It is also one of many examples of wordplay (like Constance's constant presence in the home), as well as one of the various interpretive clues the writers claim to drop throughout the show.
According to its creators, the theme of the first season of the series (each season will have a new one) is infidelity, which they call "the monster in the closet" that "can destroy and haunt you." Of the adulterer Ben, they explain, "This is a guy who has brought the horror into his home. And that's the idea of any haunted house movie. It's not just the haunted house, it's about the loss of your home. It's about not feeling safe in the most safe place."6 As Constance's jilted lover says to her in a moment of anguish, "The house didn't do this to me—you did."
This is how the horror genre has worked for hundreds of years. From the Cyclops in ancient times, to the dance of death and Dante's circles of hell in the Middle Ages, to the various permutations of the Frankenstein story in the modern age, the surface elements of horror stories have always merely been portals to the things that really terrify us. As that master of terror, Stephen King, explains, "A good horror story is one that functions on a symbolic level, using fictional (and sometimes supernatural) events to help us understand our own deepest real fears."7 Horror writer and critic (and entertainment lawyer) Douglas E. Winter describes horror as "a progressive form of fiction that continually evolves to meet the fears and anxieties of its times."8 American Horror Story insightfully shows that while our culture no longer fears the torments of monsters or the anguish of the plague or the tortures of hell, we do fear betrayal by those we love.
And betrayal's deepest cut—one that betrays the whole person—is sexual infidelity. Sexual infidelity unites the storylines of all the major characters in American Horror Story. The gay couple among the house's previous owners is haunted by infidelity even before their murder traps them together forever in the afterlife. The horror for the Harmon family (who seem to keep piling on each other, in another example of the show's ubiquitous word play, harm on harm on harm) begins with Ben's sexual infidelity, an act that multiplies the hurt within his family like compounding interest. As one character sagely tells Vivien, "Cheating on one's pregnant wife qualifies as an unspeakable criminal act. It's on a par with murder."
Longing for Family
Yet despite, or perhaps because of, so many betrayals, the successive generations of ghosts that haunt the house yearn for the same thing: family—and more particularly, children. Amid all the supernatural elements of the show, one of the most eerie ends up being the most natural: the desire for children, a desire that literally haunts the inhabitants of this house. It's the one thing, even more than shared lovers, that unifies the women characters, both living and dead.
Images reflecting this longing for traditional family pervade the show. But the perversity of these images, occurring as they do amid swirling mayhem, only adds to the host of specters haunting those trapped (whether dead or alive) in their American horror stories. At one family dinner (many scenes take place around the dinner table), Violet, following a row with her ultra-cool parents, admonishes them to "go back to your policy of benign neglect!" On another occasion, Tate, having been abandoned by his father and neglected by his fame-chasing mother, confesses his crimes to Ben. And when Ben replies, "I'm not your priest, Tate. I can't absolve you," the evil young mass-murderer and rapist—who is, after all, still and perpetually in the afterlife a boy—begs him, "But can you just hang out with me sometimes?"
The turning point for Ben himself—who ends up reunited and happy with his family, albeit in the world of the living dead, at season's end—comes when he at last sees the world his infidelity has wrought for the horror it is. He does so, ironically, with the prompting of Constance, who, exasperated that Ben refuses to believe what is right there in front of him because he cannot conceive of it, demands, "How can you be so arrogant to think that there's only one reality that you're able to see?"
This line sheds light on another of the show's mysteries: Moira, the maid who "comes with the house." Though she is an old woman, Ben mysteriously sees her only as she appeared in her youth: as a sexy, lascivious beauty whose seductions he is unable to resist. In true Aristotelian manner, Ben's redemptive moment comes when he is able to "see" the truth around him because he finally sees the truth about himself. Then, for the first time, he sees Moira as the old woman she is.
And it is Moira—this alternately seductive young maid and loathsome hag, one eye shot out in youthful life by Constance and now the house's half-blind seer—it is Moira who sees the truth from the beginning. In an early scene, a leader of the recurring Murder House Tour, on which the Harmon House is a stop, describes the abortion business once housed there and proclaims that "the souls of twelve babies are said to haunt the house to this day." Later, in one of many carefully constructed parallelisms and echoes that permeate the show, Moira explains to Vivien, "We're all just lost souls, aren't we?" •
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