Praise for Twisted Tales Events
'In the past few years Twisted Tales has become a major force in the promotion and appreciation of horror fiction. As well as putting on author readings and signings at bookshops it has expanded into organising larger events, bringing authors and critics together for discussions of the field. I've been involved in quite a few of both and have found them hugely enjoyable and stimulating - I believe the audiences did as well. May Twisted Tales continue to grow and prosper! If you love the field, support them! I do.' - Ramsey Campbell
‘Twisted Tales consistently produce well-organised events for writers and readers of horror. What really distinguishes Twisted Tales for me is the intelligent themes and investigations they pursue, and the high quality of the discussions they always stimulate. As an author I've been invited to three of their events and have been pleasantly startled, to near shocked, by the attendance levels - two out of three were even sold out. I salute anyone who contributes so much to the literary and cultural life of horror fiction.’- Adam Nevill
Monday, 30 March 2015
American Horror Story: Asylum reviewed by Eleanor Beal
Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk
Brad Falchuck and Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story aired in 2011 and played out to both criticism and critical acclaim. While Murder House exhibited an astonishing range of horror ingredients from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Shining to Rosemary’s Baby, likewise, the eagerly awaited second instalment to the American Horror Story anthology, Asylum, plunders from American anti-convent mythology and paranoid conspiracy narratives. There is no doubt that American Horror Story is a masterful lesson in American fictions that make monsters. Yet, the show’s monstrosity is not merely a fictional projection. Instead, it offers demonstration after demonstration of the making of real contemporary monstrosity: gimps, lunatic ex-girlfriends, phantom pregnancies, evangelical scientists, suicides, rapists, Nazis, rednecks, calculating and cruel clergy, maniacal mothers, corrupt fathers, child abductors and serial killers abound.
The unarguable popularity of American Horror Story shows us that television has come to serve as a convenient vehicle for the articulation of what American society finds truly monstrous in the twenty-first century. Asylum is set in Briarcliff Manor, a sanatorium set up by the Catholic Church for the criminally insane and continues to pose questions of the ‘monsters’ that American culture creates. This includes holding a mirror up to the audience’s voyeurism and seemingly obsessive appetite for the monstrous. Asylum initially opens in the present day and focuses on a couple of sexy, young newly-weds called Teresa and Leo (Jenna Dewan Tatum and Adam Levine) as they honeymoon on horror. In the opening shots, these thrill seekers venture into the abandoned sanatorium and, with much heavy panting and dirty-talk, get-off on the building’s gruesome past. Teresa, reading from a history book, reveals that one of the more notorious inhabitants was a serial killer called ‘Bloody Face’. A diabolic murderer of women so named because he likes to skin and then wear his victims’ faces. The couple are obviously thrilled by the building’s history of violence and mayhem, that is, until fantasy becomes a reality and a psychotic masked killer begins to stalk them through the asylum, ripping them limb from limb.
How, according to Asylum, did a dubious taste in foreplay, manage to get the hapless young couple violently dismembered? Well, as with all things in American Horror Story, the answer is bound up in the dark, dark past. Subsequently, the series explores the historical events of Briarcliff Manor. Beginning in the 1960s, it follows the stories of several misfits employed by the institution along with the inmates committed to its labyrinthine wards for crimes against normality. The fierce Sister Jude (Jessica Lang) and her sweet-tempered novice, Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), are charged with the everyday running and maintenance of the institution and with upholding the religious standards set out by its founder Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes). While the nuns attend to the patients’ spiritual health, their mental and physical care is the domain of Psychiatrist Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto) and scientist Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell). Briarcliff’s latest patient, Kit Walker, aka ‘Bloodyface’ (Evan Peters), is an alleged serial killer and mutilator of women. Walker has been sent to the asylum deemed unfit for trial due to his apparent insanity after claiming that aliens committed the crimes he is accused of.
Kit’s insane alibi aside, Asylum gives clear indication of his innocence early on and, instead, sets him up to be the focal point through which we experience the fear and injustices perpetrated by institutions of mental health during the 1960s. Yet, despite this Asylum is very much a women’s horror story. As David Simmons pointed out in his review of the first season, ‘American Horror Story places an unusual degree of emphasis on its female characters’. The second season continues this trend, reprising key roles for many of season one’s central female actors, including Lange, Rabe and the queen of weird TV, Frances Conroy, as the angel of death. It also introduces a new cast of female monsters and madwomen whose alleged mental disturbances and past crimes are the means through which the series explores a number of social issues related to what we fear. At Briarcliff, Walker meets many other patients with allegedly violent and twisted backgrounds including Pepper (Naomi Grossman), a microcephalic woman who killed her sister’s baby and cut its ears off, Shelley (Chloë Sevigny) a diagnosed nymphomaniac, and Grace (Lizzie Brocheré) an axe-murderer. The standout female performance, however, goes to Sarah Paulson whose vague and unconvincing role as a clairvoyant-for-hire in season one is more than redeemed by her new role in Asylum as ambitious lesbian journalist Lana Winters. Winters infiltrates the formidable Briarcliff determined to expose the wrongdoings being carried out inside its walls. However, when her relationship with a female school teacher is uncovered by Sister Jude, Lana finds herself incarcerated as a patient and referred to Dr. Thredson for help with her ‘affliction’.
As in the first series, a dominant theme of Asylum is the twisted morals and psychosexual disorders underpinning definitions of normative identity. Along with staple horror figures, the series examines public figures as diverse as the psychiatrist, the doctor, and the priest, representing them as authorised predators at their most imperious, ambitious, and downright evil. As the series progresses, the professional and personal lives of its authority figures are revealed to be adventures in sadism, masochism, self-hatred and perversion. Cue scenes of prolific cruelty including electroshock treatment, ice baths, emotional and physical abuse all delivered with a barely concealed sexual tension. Sister Jude harbours a secret lust for Monsignor Timothy and enjoys punishing the angelic Kit by bending him over a desk and caning his naked backside. Dr. Arden is a Nazi Eugenicist with an obsessive hatred of impurity; particularly it seems of the female sex. This fear guides his mysterious experiments in the basements of Briarcliff and his own dark desires for the innocent and chaste Sister Eunice.
Asylum preempts the accusations made by some critics that American Horror Story is a ridiculous pileup of mindless sex and cruelty, hard to stomach. From the season’s credit sequence, a montage of strapped-down bodies, heaving bosoms and tear-soaked faces, to the introduction of sex and horror tourists Leo and Teresa, to Kit Walker’s ‘probing’ by ETs, it unashamedly points out that the theme of scary and deviant sex is the series’ dominant metaphor for horror. In pursuit of these ends, Asylum continues to push the boundaries of what is acceptable to air on television. There are horrors upon horrors, brutality upon brutality, humiliation upon humiliation and every twist and turn is set up to both shock and shamelessly titillate. Nonetheless, there is also a deftness with which Asylum pursues some of the seemingly conflicted but entangled cultures that form modern American identity, including its voyeuristic embrace of celebrity, psychiatry, and fundamentalist religion.
Lana’s story is, in part, about the plight of gay people who historically have been ‘treated’ through medicine and psychiatry in a way that amounts to physical and mental torture. Instead of Thredson ‘curing’ Lana of her lesbianism, he subjects her to a cruel bout of aversion/conversion therapy that involves administering fellatio to an awkward but willing male volunteer as the psychiatrist looks on. As if this upsetting scene were not enough, the plot thickens when Lana becomes the object of Thredson’s own obsessive love disorder causing him to lock her in a basement/dungeon under his house. In one of many plot twists, the handsome and progressive psychiatrist is revealed to be more dangerous than simply a misguided practitioner; he is none other than the serial killer ‘Bloody Face’. In Thredson’s dungeon, we witness him taunt Lana with the dismembered head of her dead lover before enduring queasy scenes of her subjection to violence, rape and the enforced suckling of a grown man. Eventually, Lana escapes only to find she has been impregnated by her sadistic captor.
There is no doubt that Asylum tackles issues of homophobia, sexism, racism, and disability with a signature heavy-handedness that will not redeem it with outraged moralists. Nevertheless, the premise of the entire American Horror Story anthology is to test the limits of horror and morality by pushing every situation or relationship, real or unreal, to its absolutely worst-case scenario. Others will not fail to see through the layers of violence and horror and recognise the irony of a mummy-fixated psychiatrist or the underlying social commentary about a career driven, homosexual woman enduring the horror of misguided psychiatry and enforced motherhood. Like Lana, all of Asylum’s characters are monstrous, in that they are burdened with behaviours that are deemed to threaten society. However, as the series unfolds within the confines of the asylum walls, it digs into the pasts of patients and employees, making the audience question what monstrosity is. Is Shelley’s excessive lust really a sign of insanity or is she, as she claims, a gendered victim of double standards? Did Grace slaughter her father and stepmother because she is criminally and irredeemably violent, or was it really the desperate act of an abused child? Does Sister Jude really believe that all sex is sin, or is she merely acting out an absolution of her own guilty past? The further the series delves into the origins of its characters’ monstrosity, the more it appears that it is the product of other evils.
The berserk and vaguely satirical attitude of the series allows Murphy and Falchuk to slip other cultural controversies under the radar and develop sympathetic bonds with the monstrous, often capturing the humanity of those characters that inflict the worse kinds of cruelties. Monsters, in American Horror Story, are very human. Furthermore, they act as mirrors to our own cultural obsessions with the monstrous. As Sister Jude warns ‘if you look in the face of evil, evil is gonna look right back at you’. At the heart of this is a commentary on the grotesquery of our own fascination with violence and monstrosity, a commentary that began with Leo and Teresa but surely finds its antithesis in Lana’s reinvention at the end of the series. Lana more than survives her ordeal; it makes her a star. In 1969 we revisit Lana a year after her escape and witness her reinvention as a celebrity author, peddling in sensationalised and salacious versions of her own heroism and victimisation. As she entertains her fans at a reading of her acclaimed book Maniac: One Woman’s Story of Survival, the camera pans the audience as they sit like evangelicals at a Revival, communing with Lana and her trauma as well as devouring every morbid detail. We cannot help but notice the self-conscious allusion to our own macabre fascination with horror; the same fascination that keeps us glued to our seats throughout American Horror Story and seen the show garner several Emmys, a People’s Choice Award and, for one of its returning actresses, Lange, a Golden Globe. Rather than a criticism of its audience, Lana’s narrative is an exploitation of the public and social ceremony of monstrosity that offers an accomplished and insightful response to the outrage and affront aimed at it by some critics. Horror, it suggests, is an extreme form of art but it is also something from which we take comfort as well as fear, re-evaluate meaning and shape the boundaries of morality.
Eleanor is Television Editor for Twisted Tales and recently completed her doctoral thesis in English Literature at Lancaster University. Her research concerns the conjunction of Catholicism and sexuality in Gothic fiction and horror film and focuses on its trans-national and contemporary contexts. She is especially interested in the post-secular theologies of transgressive texts and their relationship to history, nationalism, politics and gender theory. Eleanor has published on the topics of religion, female sexuality, cinema and spectacle in relation to postmodern Gothic writing and has previously held the post of postgraduate representative on the editorial board for Gothic Studies.