I’m easily scared these days. I never used to be – as a teenager I loved horror films, and my favourite show was (still is) The X-Files. Now I’m jumpy. I’m afraid of flying, traffic accidents, home invasions. I freak myself out just walking down the hallway at night. And yet, somehow, I have recently become addicted to American Horror Story.
This series began in 2011 and is currently in the middle of its fourth season. As its title suggests, American Horror Story is the television equivalent of a scary movie, but with a few twists on the genre. AHS is created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk – the boys responsible for Nip/Tuck and Glee. I was a couple of seasons into American Horror Story before I realised who Murphy and Falchuk were, and at first I was a little put off (I’ve only watched a couple of episodes of Glee, but that was enough to know I was not going to be a fan). Once I saw Jessica Lange in her first musical number, however (a surreal extravaganza in an asylum) I began to realise what AHS’s deal was. This series is, essentially, Glee turned inside-out. Just like Glee, American Horror Story is about spectacle: it is voyeuristic, emotional, cathartic, and sexy. AHS is the B-side of Glee; the side with the blood stains.
One of the most interesting things about AHS is the way it experiments with the TV series format. Like True Detective, American Horror Story is an anthology series, with each season telling its own separate and complete story. Unlike True Detective, however, AHS uses many of the same actors in every season – most notably Lily Rabe, Sarah Paulson, Frances Conroy, Evan Peters, and Jessica Lange (who has won numerous awards for her roles in the series). The use of a repertory company is an interesting choice, and one that I’m not sure completely works. I do like a lot of the actors (particularly Frances Conroy), but at times I feel like they are given similar sorts of roles (Jessica Lange consistently plays a powerful but manipulative, self-destructive matriarch, for example, and Evan Peters is usually cast as the hard-done-by but handsome hero).
Not surprisingly for a show that sets out to shock (this series is certainly not an exercise in subtlety) American Horror Story inspires extreme reactions. This article in The Guardian describes it as “the Marmite of TV shows” – you either love it or hate it. And there is a lot to criticise about AHS. The writing is at times predictable and clichéd and the stories are mammoth and sprawling. There are so many characters and subplots in this show that it is impossible to get them straight. Something tells me, however, that the creators are not particularly concerned about any of these things. I don’t think Murphy and Falchuk are trying to create a show that makes sense. AHS strikes me as a sort of playful experiment; a fun mash-up of as many horror movie tropes as the creators can think of. One of the things that disappoints me a little about this series is that it does, at times, come very close to being a clever parody of the American horror genre. It falls short, however, when it begins to take itself too seriously.
I like American Horror Story not for its stories but for the way it feels to be caught up in each episode. AHS is creepy, dramatic, musical, and sexy. It reminds me of a darker version of the late nineties-early 2000s NBC soap Passions – only with better production values. I like the way AHS looks – at once dark and full of colour (a haunted house in LA; a coven in New Orleans; circus tents in Florida). The opening credits are (like the show itself) stuffed full of creepy and not necessarily relevant images. The soundtrack is unsettling, but somehow also catchy. The way the show is filmed (particularly the ‘cold-open’ at the beginning of each episode) is reminiscent of The X-Files; not surprising, since writers/executive-producers James Wong and Tim Minear used to work on the show. It should also be noted that AHS is female-dominated; the majority of the roles in the show are for women, and the female characters are undoubtedly the focus of each season.
American Horror Story is a ridiculous series, but it is successfully ridiculous. AHS is like Halloween: it allows us to come face to face with scary characters and places, but in ways that render them less terrifying. The reason I can watch AHS, I think, is because it is so ludicrous. It is a reminder that fear can be fun, and that it can feel good – in the same way that having a good cry can. Watching American Horror Story is a bit like riding a rollercoaster – once it’s over I can barely remember all the twists and turns, but I know I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.
American Horror Story currently airs on FX, and has been renewed for a fifth season. Murphy and Falchuk are apparently working on a companion series, titled American Crime Story.