What Happened to ‘American Horror Story’?

Growing up, I had an irrational fear of clowns. I distinctly remember going to a neighbor’s birthday party when I was seven or eight and locking myself in a nearby closet, unable to move until my mom crawled in with me and coaxed me out. That clown had hair the color of a red delicious apple and his face was stark white, the make-up so caked on that any sort of muscle movement of sign of expression caused it to crackle like paint chipping off the siding of an old house. His lips were wide and red and, against his skin, his teeth looked as if they were stained yellow. He wore a shiny polka-dotted yellow and blue tent, exaggerated at the hips, and as I sat there staring at him through the cracked door of the closet, I imagined him plucking my friends from the party, one by one, and tossing them into a wagon, much like Stromboli, the slimy, cartoonishly Italian villain from Disney’s Pinnochio — a movie that haunted me as a child — and either selling them or eating them.

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As I grew, I never quite got over my fear of clowns, yet I learned to delight in all things horror, especially those offered up by Hollywood. My Italian grandmother sat me down and told me that The Exorcist (1973) was a story about why it’s important to believe in God, my best friend developed an obsession with classic zombie flicks, and my cousins made me watch Nightmare on Elm Street and Poltergeist (though I refused — and still refuse — to watch Stephen King’s It) so that by the time I was able to go to horror films on my own in high school, seeing the The Ring, Sixth Sense, or 28 Days Later, I was well-versed in the genre enough to know what was truly good — that combined artful storytelling and character development with bone-chilling frights — from the bad, like The Blair Witch Project or the Jessica Biel-led Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake.

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As I grew, both in intellect and taste, I gravitated more toward other film genres with unique stories and characters, rather than spend my hard-earned money on a movie ticket for cheap screams over recycled plot-lines featuring a family, usually a white “American Dream”-like family with a mom, dad, and 2.5 children (whatever that means), moving into an old house or breaking down on the side of the road, and being possessed and/or haunted and/or followed by some sort of unknown entity/killer/supernatural somethingorother. It had gotten to a point where Hollywood’s horror genre had been overrun by lifeless characters and no-stakes plot points. Somewhere, horror went from truly chilling game-changers like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window or Psycho to mind numbing fillers and remakes like House of Wax starring Paris Hilton.

When American Horror Story first debuted in 2011, my instinct was to stay far away, despite being a huge fan of all things Ryan Murphy, like Popular, Nip/Tuck, and Glee. Ryan Murphy has a knack for being subversive and using irreverent humor as a way to comment on very real social issues. Sue Sylvester is a wonderful foil to nearly every character on Glee, Popular really played with high school hierarchy and social norms using irony before Tina Fey did it with Mean Girls, and Nip/Tuck was dubious, devious, and smarmy, yet charming. At least for the first few seasons until it became insipid and hard to swallow, a theme the seemingly runs through Ryan Murphy creations that run just a bit longer than they probably should have. So my first thought was to stay away from American Horror Story. Plus, I wasn’t sold on the idea of a horror-themed TV show, simply because the best horror films aren’t very soap-y, and TV dramas tend to lay heavy on that element, despite their genre; it’s an inherent quality of hour-long episodic television.

I’m glad I ultimately decided to watch the first season once it debuted on Netflix during the show’s second season. Ok, so it wasn’t really my decision. My boyfriend made me. One episode into Murder House, I was hooked. Vivienne (Connie Britton) and Ben (Dylan McDermott) Harmon were the broken couple you felt guilty rooting for, Jessica Lange was a sharp-tongued Bewitched-flavored treat, and the entities that haunted the house, like the brilliant Evan Peters’ Tate Langdon, a school shooter who was equal parts Holden Caulfield and psycho-killer, who was shot down in the house, were downright spooky.

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Sure, it all was very “kitchen sink”-y, mixing elements of classic hauntings, demonic possessions, blood thirsty murder mysteries, and satanic spawn, but it was done with an homage toward it’s various film predecessors, and that was admirable. Not only that, but the tongue-in-cheek camp elements made it fun to watch (Zachary Quinto as a sassy gay home decorator turned-dominatrix? I’ll take it!)

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Despite it’s all-or-nothing approach to the horror genre, Murder House was compelling television. Each episode was a suspenseful, contained story of a former resident-turned ghost of the infamous mansion, whose haunted beginnings begin and end with the infantata, the dismembered and reassembled baby of the house’s architects and first residents, Charles and Nora Montgomery, yet they all told one story: That of the Harmon family and how each member dies and becomes a part of the house, and how ultimately Vivienne gives birth to what essentially amounts to the antichrist (he was born when ghost Tate raped a living Vivienne and created a baby half of this world, half of the underworld.)

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Chilling.

I was such an ardent fan that, when I went to LA this past year, visiting the real-life Murder House was an essential activity.

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The boy looking giddy in front of Murder House.

The second season, Asylum, followed the storyline of one particular killer, the fictional Bloody Face, and took place primarily in Briarcliff Manor, a mental institution run by the Catholic Church. Cue possessed nuns, exorcisms, criminally insane murders, ex-Nazi doctors performing gross experimentations, and a corrupt system that victimizes the innocent, including a lesbian journalist, Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) dead-set on exposing the whole operation. During the show’s most terrifying hour to date, nun Sister Mary Eunice is possessed by the devil during an exorcism of a teenage boy sent to Briarcliff because his possession was deemed psychotic.

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The scariest season to date, Asylum was darker in tone than Murder House, addressing head-on the notion of evil and it’s ability to follow you, should you seek it out. Sure, it had the whole aliens subplot, which, like it’s predecessor, was total kitchen sink, but it was still gripping television. After all, isn’t the whole point of American Horror Story to suspend disbelief, soak in the camp and witty writing, and get a good scare?

Asylum was, from a storytelling standpoint, the most-gripping of all of the seasons. Each character had a substantial arc over the course of the season, none more compelling than that of Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) and Lana Winters. Even the season’s antagonists, Bloody Face and Bloody Face Jr., Dr. Threadson (Zachary Quinto) and Johnny (Dylan McDermott) had substance. It was the perfect balance of arc and shock-and-awe.

Fast-forward to the show’s third season, Coven, which was the most watched season (until Freak Show) and developed a cult-like status on social media and became a cultural zeitgeist. This season was decidedly campier, more kitschy, and more gory than scary. This story followed the last remaining coven’s in the US at Miss Robichaux’s Academy in New Orleans. The cast was predominantly women, which usually would get a big thumbs up for me, seeing as how women in power (quite literally, in this sense) are grossly underrepresented, but instead, it became a detriment. Why? Because for the entire length of the season, all these women did was fight with each other, whether verbally or meta-physically.

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As a feminist, I know that there’s a need for stronger women in the media, not catty representations of female tropes that are more-or-less replicas of Meryl Streep’s character Miranda Priestly from Devil Wears Prada. Actually, add magic and an unnecessary amount of Stevie Nicks musical numbers, subtract a satisfying ending, and that accurately sums up the entirely of Coven. Not to mention the theme of vanity; Jessica Lange’s Fiona’s motivations revolved purely around vanity, even if it cost her her daughter. Doesn’t exactly echo forward movement. Still, I was willing to suspend judgement until the end, to see if American Horror Story could somehow make the rape culture theme of the first episode, the racism motif, and the flat, dull “bitch” tropes of the main cast work for the sake of the story.

In the end, though, for all it’s magic, it was fairly unimaginative, which was a shame because with new additions to the cast like Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates, it should have been a lot better. Halfway through the season, it seems creator Ryan Murphy just decided to drop every subplot, including, but not limited to Evan Peter’s Frankenteen story, the headless racist Delphine LaLaurie’s (Bates) story arc, Marie Laveau’s (Bassett) purpose in the series at all, and instead focus on who was the next supreme. Oh, and Stevie Nicks, who, despite being a living legend, should not have multiple musical numbers in a TV show in the horror genre.

Despite this, there were still some bone-chilling moments, like this scene where Francis Conroy’s Myrtle Snow takes a melon baller and scoops out the eyes of a member of the witches counsel:

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Ultimately, the show became more about meme-worthy moments, GIF shares on Twitter, and the quotable and admittedly witty dialogue.

BALENCIAGA

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I was hopeful, though, that season four would see a return to form for the show that had me waiting on pins and needles every week during the second season.

Given my fear of clowns, imagine my horror — and sheer delight — when it was announced that Freak Show would be the theme; when the brief teasers began appearing online, I nearly peed myself. Mostly out of fear, but mostly because I couldn’t contain my anticipation.

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Then the season premiered. So far, it’s been a bloated mess of characters and exposition, with lengthy scenes of dialogue between characters who were never fleshed out; Kathy Bates’ bearded lady Ethel is quite possibly the most boring character. It’s a waste of Bates’ talents, whose performance in Misery still makes my spine tingle. As Ethel, Bates just talks a lot, explaining a lot that doesn’t really need to be explained at all. This has been a theme of the entire season, and the overall point seems to have gotten lost due to the bloated, underdeveloped cast of characters.

I’ve affectionately dubbed this season American Soap Opera Story: Glee. 

You know it’s bad when a series of GIFs are scarier and more compelling than the oft-bloated episodes of the actual show.

ahs-twisty giphyYep. You just witnessed some of scariest moments of AHS: Freak Show. Twisty the Clown was way too real.

Perhaps it’s due to the Glee-style musical numbers in six out of the nine currently aired episodes, all of which are unnecessary to the forward movement of the plot and none of which are historically accurate. Even Jessica Lange’s Elsa Mars is a barely believable character; there’s only so many seasons where the female characters can obsess over youth and vanity. Mars’ S&M/amputation backstory was fantastic, but that was one part of one episode. It all comes down to pacing.The show never quite seems to get anywhere, despite each episode’s runtime being longer than the normal 42-minutes. In fact, this just makes each week’s offering a torture to sit through, especially when you spend most of that time hoping for something that could recapture the magic of the first two seasons.

Besides the short-lived Twisty (who was killed off much too early) and Elsa’s amputation scenes, the one bright spot has been Finn Wittrock’s Dandy.

tumblr_nep96v2FBu1soto9no3_500Wittrock, the obvious breakout star of this season, plays a sociopathic serial killer who sympathizes with Twisty the murderous clown and discovers an innate pleasure in killing.ahs-freak-show-gif-1

In fact, watching Dandy revel in his blood baths from week to week has been exciting and left me breathless, longing for more of Dandy, but those moments are all too fleeting. In comparison, the Dandy-less scenes of each episode seem to drag on, and I find myself replaying his scenes in my head until he graces the TV screen again.

One thing that Ryan Murphy has always does extremely well is to get inside the mind of someone who isn’t “normal.” His strengths are when he plays to the extraordinary psychologies of his characters, and Dandy is no exception. In the latest episode, when he’s confronted by the daughter of his maid, whom he’d killed weeks earlier, he screams and stomps around in a very Christian Bale-in-American Psycho-sort-of-way and it’s utterly enthralling. In the opening sequence, he kills the traveling Avon lady and decapitates her, sewing her head on the body of his dead mother, whom he’d also killed, and animated her two-headed corpse like a puppet.

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If the entire season revolved around Dandy, or at least cut down on the insanely long runtimes, refined the expository dialogue, and ramped up the scare factor, it could have been the best season yet. It had all the makings of a unique offering due to its richly diverse cast. So what happened to American Horror Story? Is it just another casualty of the Ryan Murphy-train, suffering from the “we’ve run out of viable stories to tell and so we’re just retreading and committing character/actor assassination” disease that’s currently plaguing Glee and formerly killed Nip/Tuck? Was this season just not thought out, much like the back-half of Coven? Was there an endgame in mind? Has the show become nothing more than a vanity project for Ryan Murphy’s menagerie of esteemed Hollywood actresses? More importantly, can the show be saved? We’re two episodes away from the season finale in January, and we’re no closer to recapturing the majesty of the first two seasons, or even Coven. After the finale, fans will be chomping at the bit for the next slice of information about season 5, whose theme has yet to be revealed, though is rumored to revolve around Area 51.

A lot of momentum and intrigue in the show has been lost, and it’s up to the last remaining episodes to renew interest in the show again. The fans speak volumes, Mr. Murphy:

Bottomline: AHS needs to find the right balance between witty, campy, thrilling, and, most of all, SCARY. American Horror Story doesn’t work without the spine-tingling, hair-raising, horror-inducing, make-you-jump-out-of-your-seat-and-scream moments. And that’s what happened to American Horror Story. Or didn’t, as the case my be with Freak Show.

What do you think of AHS: Freak Show? Do you think it can be saved? Sound off in the comments below!

3 thoughts on “What Happened to ‘American Horror Story’?

  1. I’ve never watched American horror story (and I don’t think I will because after reading this Im definitely too scared too!), but I used to love Glee and I see a pattern in Ryan Murphys shows. It’s like after awhile, he loses the point, the whole reason for the show and like he adds all of these characters to an already full cast and then forgets about following through with their storylines. Interesting pattern. You should write about that with Glee. Did you see the new trailer for the 6th season?

    • Thanks Tina B.! It’s funny that you mention that because I’ve been considering writing something similar for Glee, but I’m waiting to see what happens in season 6… I want to think that’ll it be a return to form, or at least a rejuvenation of creativity, like the New York-based episodes were last season (which, I may be in the minority, but I thought were exceptional and some of the shows best!) I’m hesitant though because Ryan Murphy committed total character assassination on Rachel at the end of last season… WHY, after 5 years of her dreaming of playing Fanny Brice in Funny Girl on Broadway, would she quit to be on TV?

  2. Pingback: From 2014 to 2015: Bridging the Media Diversity Gap | HyperReality

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