You are Going to Die in There: Some Thoughts on American Horror Story

Last nightamerican-horror-story-fx I watched the premier of American Horror Story on FX. Reviewers have given it a decidedly mixed reception though my hopes have been up. The early previews made it seem a bit Twin Peak-ish and I’m obviously excited about anything that attempts to Americanize horror.

Having seen the first episode, my biggest complaint is that this is a show rife with cliché, at least in its premises. Anybody who has watched a good ghost story knows that a troubled family looking for a fresh start does not go and buy a house with period charm and a dark, notorious past.

Luckily, the clichés stop here and we get the beginnings of some old-school psychological horror a la Shirley Jackson in Haunting of Hill House.  There is a lot of dream-like imagery and moments in the show where it’s not clear if the members of our unlucky our family are dreaming or waking. There’s also, and this was really effective, just a general atmosphere of dread that pervades the whole story.

My own favorite moments were all about Jessica Lange who is creepy and threatening as an aging southern psychotic. She chews scenery and will maybe give you bad dreams.

I do worry that this strong opening will not really be sustainable. This feels like a really good mini-series or short-season show that could well be ruined with a lot of Lost-like puzzles that the writers introduce and never resolve.

Certainly one good thing I have to say about AHS is its willingness to tap into some of the dark undercurrents of American attitudes toward sexuality and gender. In fact, it feels like a compendium of all the family horrors we’ve been pondering in American society for fifty years. The show explores everything from fears about pregnancy to anxiety about sexuality.

Monsters in America does something very similar. In a chapter called “Haunted Houses,” it looks at how the dynamics of gender, sexuality and conflicted households have provided the subtext for American horror from Rosemary’s Baby forward. American Horror Story involves many of the same kinds of themes—betrayal, family dysfunction, spirits that inhere in the architecture of our private lives. Family is scary.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how much of our most popular television programs have dealt with the idea of what I call “subverted normalcy.” AMC’s Breaking Bad and Showtime’s Dexter and Weeds have showcased efforts by suburban families to lead the good life while, to quote from Dexter, some kind of “Dark Passenger” subverts this effort. Tony Soprano was the paradigm of this idea, living the dream in a “McMansion” while also dealing with the troubles of his other “family.”

I’m wondering if the darkness of the last decade, the subversion of dreams of middle class comfort by the real and growing economic crisis combined with fears of terrorism and “War without end”, have made Americans ready for another kind of narrative, a narrative of terror in which the façade of normalcy gets torn away rather quickly, in which its characters cannot compartmentalize their lives (cooking meth/teaching chemistry or being a dad/being a mob boss).

Now we are ready for narratives that take us to the strangest of places, where the terror jumps out of out closets, runs around in the new real estate we’ve purchased, threatens our sanity, our closest relationships and our lives. Welcome to the American horror story.

What I’m Watching: Recently caught the Norwegian indie Trollhunter and highly recommend it. It’s “found footage horror” though significantly less dark than the genre tends to be. Also, the trolls are awesome and the overall narrative highly original.

What I’m Reading: Was just sent a prelease copy of Jonathan Lethem’s new non-fiction collection of essays called Ecstasies of influence and am excited to get into it. Still reading Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and loving it.

What I’m Listening to: There is no foul mood that listening to Velvet Underground’s Loaded album will not cure.

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