Corpses in the Basement, Things in Jars: Sex, Real Estate and History in American Horror Story

I saw the finale of American Horror Story and maybe there’s not much to unpack, exploding as it did with pure, over the top, guy running around in a rubber suit insanity. In other words, what the show does best. That is, until we found ourselves in the middle of the American Horror Story Christmas episode close to the end. But , I must say, all is forgiven for the last five minutes of Jessica Lange and her murderous new ally.

Looking back on my response to the first episode, I’m glad to have been wrong about a few things, or at least to have my worries put to rest. The writers knew the dark places they would take us. The overused trope of the troubled family trying to make a new start in the house with a bloody past gave way to one of the most interesting mediations on how the dead are related to the living since Alejandro Amenabar’s 2001 The Others.

So, I should have believed. The show this season has been near perfect. And its become a show cultural historians need to pay attention to. It uses all the psychosexual dog whistles that are likely to draw us in really no matter what.  But it also has more depth than this, taps into American fears both old and new and makes those fears something more than anxiety, more than psychological terror.

In a sense, it’s a psychological horror tale that makes fun of psychology and hardwires its monstrosities into the American past.

THEY ALL DIED IN promised.


The show has managed to explore the dark undercurrents of the idea of the American Dream (ironically a term first used in 1931…during the Great Depression) in the midst of a stumbling economy and homeownership horror.  Denis O’Hare, as Larry Harvey, embodies these impossible desires in his pursuit of Constance and his effort to create an ideal American family. And, as fans of the show know, he pays for it and keeps on paying.

To me, one of the season’s most chilling scenes occurs around the seemingly mundane effort of Larry to have a family dinner and force his prospective stepson say grace. Its more than simply awkward. It’s the vision of domestic life as perfection and bliss that’s horrific underside will destroy them all. “The family that prays together stays together”—and they have stayed together, locked in the deadly embrace of various American dreams turned into screaming nightmares.

Speaking of evoking American nightmares, the use in the penultimate episode of “the Lost Colony of Roanoke” became one of my favorite moments this season. This is in part because I became interested in the various supernatural uses of the story in American folk life and popular culture while writing Monsters in America. Pondering the fate of the lost colonists has become a way to ponder the meaning of the conquest and settlement of the new world. As I explain in Monsters,this led to stories about Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the new world, as a shapeshifter, a creature of magic who could pass between the European world and the world of native peoples.

Settler John White's 1585 map of Roanoke.

Notably, Seth Grahame-Smith in his novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, also fits Roanoke into his American horror story. It becomes the transfer point of evil into the new world, the place where vampirism first fed on the new land. It becomes a kind of symbol of his secret history of America. It’s the evil that haunts the fringes of the official American narrative that I also explore as a historian in Monsters in America.

American Horror Story put Roanoke to a very different purpose. The medium that comes to cleanse the house tells a very convincing story about Native American spirituality driving away the angry spirits with the word “Croatoan.” Violet uses this tale to exorcize Zachary Quinto’s seemingly murderous spirit. Not only does this not work, he laughs at it. Is this laughter at the deeper history of America, an introduction to that most paradoxical of creatures: the ghost that refuses to take the past seriously.

Is this then a show that takes its history seriously or is it a show about the ephemera of American experience? The very setting might suggest the latter. “Murder House” breathes the air of broken American dreams at the scene of the crime…Hollywood, America’s dream factory. The ghosts that haunt the house include dead starlets, doctors to the stars turned mad scientists, souls warped and broken by make-believe. Tinsel town as metaphor for American vacuity, a city of devils and not angels.

This argues for the idea that American Horror Story has a deeper understanding of American historical experience than the “Croatoan “ business suggests. Explicating symbols always bring us way too close to the precipice of allegory, but its notable that the Harmon’s came to California from Boston, the hearth region of early American culture. Leaving behind the land of the Puritans, their trip to the 1920s “Murder House” leap frogs the opening of the frontier and the brutal conquest of the west and plops them down in a twentieth century idyll of upper middle class white home ownership. Or so they think. In Ben’s effort to erase the past, his own and our collective past, the family becomes the prey of some very twisted ghosts.

This is truly an American horror story. Ben Harmon believed purchasing real estate could save him from his sins and embarked on what he asserted as his family’s manifest destiny. And they all died in there. As Tobe Hooper said about Texas Chainsaw Massacre, “Its about America, man, its about America.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the show. Please comment here, tweet them to me @monstersamerica or comment on the book’s Facebook page.

Speaking of comments, would love to do another “Monsters Mailbag” soon. Send your questions about the book and about monsters in general to me and we’ll do that again after the holidays. Have a couple of questions and thoughts in already, would like to hear some more. Write me.

Coming up on the blog…connecting American Horror Story to the larger history of American gothic tales and, maybe the return of gothic horror signaled by AHS itself and upcoming films like The Woman in Black and The Innkeepers. We’ll look at the trailer for the latter, as it’s the new effort from my favorite indie horror director Ti West whose House of the Devil I review here.

And, as always, pick up a copy of Monsters in America at you favorite independent bookstore or buy from an independent online here. Read it and tell me what you think.



Hope you are surviving the holidays and spending some extra time with your family.

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