The last few years have witnessed a tremendous growth in the prominence of horror inflected shows on US subscription TV. HBO’s True Blood (2008-), Showtime’s Dexter (2006-), and AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010-) have all foregrounded graphic content and adult themes previously limited to the big screen. Such shows have managed to attract large audiences for their respective channels. Indeed, the perceived success of these genre shows has been sufficient enough that the old adage of horror ‘not working on TV’ now seems redundant. When even several of the major network channels have attempted to jump on the horror bandwagon (albeit in ‘watered down’ forms) with shows like The Vampire Diaries (2009-) and Teen Wolf (2011-) perhaps the question becomes not whether horror can ‘work’ on TV but what can the small screen do with the genre that cinema cannot. The latest addition to this roster of shows, FX’s American Horror Story (2011-), offers a fascinating answer to such queries, one that simultaneously acknowledges the dominant position of cinematic horror in the genre while playing to the strengths of the serial format particular to television.
The work of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck (creators of Nip/Tuck (2003-2010) and Glee (2009-), American Horror Story follows the story of the Harmon family; psychiatrist and father Ben (Dylan McDermott), his wife Vivien (Connie Britton), and their teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga), as they move to Los Angeles to work through a number of family issues, particularly an affair that Ben had with one of his students following Vivien’s miscarriage. While the familial discord between the three central characters is crucial to the show’s effect, with much of the ongoing tension being created out of the sense of unease and distrust that exists between Ben and Vivien, the real stars of the show are undoubtedly those characters that surround the Harmons and the haunted, so-called ‘Murder House’ that they move into. These characters include their housekeeper Moira (played in a double role by Frances Conroy and Alexandra Breckenridge); the house’s previous owner Larry Harvey (Denis O’Hare); and their neighbours the Langdons: Constance (played by a suitably weird Jessica Lange), her daughter Addie (Jamie Brewer Katelyn Reed), who has Down’s Syndrome, and her sociopathic son, Tate (Evan Peters).
Given the show’s horror leanings the first season of American Horror Story places an unusual degree of emphasis on its female characters. Both Britton’s strong yet harried and increasingly disturbed Vivien, and Farmiga’s depiction of Violet as an emotionally needy yet independent outsider are fantastic performances yet easy to relate to and they help to anchor the more outlandish elements of the show. However, it is Lange’s first TV role as Constance that really shines. Played as a combination of an almost regal southern belle and the kind of grotesque, faded starlet roles popularised by films such as Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Lange brings a bizarre believability and pathos to this character whose attempts to be a successful mother result in the creation of—as the show gradually reveals—a serial killer, a deformed monster kept in the attic, and a mentally abused young girl. Indeed, Lange’s character embodies one of the running themes of the show: the horror that is created as a result of the failure of American family life and dysfunctional domestic environments.
A sense of corrupted domesticity is ever-present in the interactions between the excellent ensemble cast who furnish the show with a twisted soap opera-ish quality. Such a trait is perhaps not surprising given co-creator Murphy’s comments on the show’s indebtedness to another, earlier gothic example of that form: "My grandmother used to force me to watch Dark Shadows [...] Even when I was sobbing, she made me watch, to toughen me up.” When one considers each show in relation to the other the parallels between the two become obvious—both are set primarily in single ‘Gothic’ house locations, centre on issues of lineage and family trauma, combine the outlandish with the realistic, and have central characters that are monstrous in some fashion. Perhaps most interestingly, much like Dark Shadows (1966-1971) did in its day, American Horror Story often adopts a camp tone, signalling to the audience its self-awareness of the (dark) humour inherent in the excesses on display.
The opening scene of “Halloween: Part 1” (1.4) demonstrates this reflexivity, operating as a wry acknowledgement of the show’s camp tone, its exploration of the tensions that exist in the domestic space, and its utilisation of established horror tropes and conventions. Telling the story of how the Murder House’s previous tenants came to die, the episode opens with two gay characters, Teddy Sears’s macho, gym-going Paddy and Zachary Quinto’s more stereotypically camp Chad arguing about Halloween preparations. While Chad frets about the decorations because he believes they might help them to sell the house, Paddy rages, making (un)intentionally humorous statements such as “I don’t give a shit about carving pumpkins, I want Love!” The scene ends with the arrival of a figure wearing a fetish ‘gimp’ costume who proceeds to murder Chad and then, in a climax that embodies the show’s blending of horror with camp, confronts an astonished Paddy who is now attired in his own cowboy costume.
ABC’s cult show might be considered as only one of several influences, both cinematic and televisual, that permeates American Horror Story. From the industrial soundscape of the opening title sequence, which is reminiscent of similar scenes from Se7en (1995) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), through the frequent allusions to horror classics such as Halloween (1978), The Shining (1980) and Don’t Look Now (1973) and the Amityville-like haunted house of the Harmons, the show operates in a distinctly post-modern fashion that might risk distancing and alienating viewers were it not for the creative team’s concerted desire to produce a show that is genuinely and continually disturbing. Indeed, Falchuck’s declaration that the show’s “main goal is to scare people” and his suggestion that “You want people to be a little bit off balance afterwards” points to a desire to position American Horror Story as part of that subgenre of horror that might be termed ‘weird’ television and which includes such esoteric yet effective fare as Twin Peaks (1990-1991), American Gothic (1995-1996) and Lars von Trier’s 1994 Danish mini-series Riget (The Kingdom). Much like these shows, American Horror Story’s ability to evoke feelings of uncanny horror is often reliant upon its serial format. The audience must be given space to get to know and understand the relationships between the show’s main characters before they can really appreciate and share in the sense of dread and unease that exists between them. As the first season’s story is told over a total of 12 episodes, we come to understand that, like the Murder House that the Harmons currently inhabit, almost all of the characters in the show are haunted in some fashion. Be it Ben who is wracked with guilt following his marital infidelity, or Constance who is shown pining for her former glories as an aspiring actress and lamenting the loss of her two deceased children, everyone has something in their past that intrudes into the present. Flashbacks are crucial to this aspect of the show, and the creative team utilise the device both in order to detail events that have happened to the central characters, and as a means of showing us the history of the house and its previous occupants. It is through this latter technique that the audience is often made privy to information that the Harmon family are not, creating suspense as we watch in anticipation of the characters realising what is really going on.
While the show maintains an off-kilter and at times effectively nightmarish sense of suspense that is reminiscent of the best moments of Twin Peaks and its ilk, American Horror Story is not averse to employing shock tactics. This is, after all, a show that contains fairly graphic depictions of child abuse, incest, rape, murder and profanity. Yet this more overtly and immediately graphic content is anchored by the nuanced and subtle character development on display. The first season’s more challenging content is perhaps most evident in the opening five minutes of episode 6 “Piggy Piggy” (1.6) in which we witness the Columbine-like high school massacre carried out by Tate Langdon. Potentially distasteful given the topicality of the events depicted, the scene arguably works as an effective rather than exploitative piece of horror because of the way it builds upon the type of character development only possible in the television format. Not only have we been given an insight into Tate’s fractured psyche over the preceding episodes but we have also learnt about the other school children and how their hostile relationships with each other and with Tate may have lead to such a terrible situation. As Falchuck suggests “The school shooting scene is so upsetting because you got to know these characters before we saw what happens to them.”
Over the course of its first season the makers of American Horror Story demonstrate a canny ability for re-energising seemingly tired genre tropes, creating a show that defines itself in relation to filmic conventions while also making the most of its televisual structuring. Early trailers for the second season hint at an unusual approach for contemporary serial drama suggesting that the programme’s verve for innovation will continue. Now entitled American Horror Story: Asylum, the teasers indicate that (like Dark Shadows before it) the show is intending to tell a different story in which many of the same actors and actresses will re-appear in a different setting playing different characters. If this is the case, then American Horror Story will have subverted the conventional structure of much of contemporary TV drama by creating a show that is both an accomplished gothic serial melodrama and a unique take on the anthology format.
David Simmons is a Lecturer in American Literature, Film and TV at the University of Northampton. He has published extensively on twentieth century American popular culture. His books include The Anti-Hero in the American Novel: From Heller to Vonnegut (Palgrave, 2008), Investigating Heroes: Truth, Justice and Quality TV (McFarland, 2011) and New Critical Essays on H.P. Lovecraft (Palgrave, 2013). In addition to this he has written on a wide range of subjects including South Park, Supernatural, Hammer Horror, and Video Game TV. David is eagerly awaiting the second series of American Horror Story and hopes it will be as perverse, twisted and generally entertaining as the first.