American Horror Story: A Gothic Extravaganza

Posted by Sharon Deans on November 08, 2011 in Blog tagged with , , ,

American Horror Story started on FX last night, and, if you missed it, then I would urge you to try and catch it on the internet.  This new psychosexual drama comes, amazingly, from Glee creator Ryan Murphy, who has turned his attention away from the all-singing, all-dancing students of McKinley High, to something far more macabre instead.  American Horror Story is a complete indulgence of Gothic excess, jam-packed with references to, amongst others, The Shining, The Haunting, The Amityville Horror, Rosemary’s Baby, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.

American Horror Story starts with the basic horror trope of a haunted house and a naïve family attempting to start a new life in it; then it just piles on horror after horror. The Harmon family, Dad (Dylan McDermott), Mom (Connie Britton) and their daughter (Taissa Farmiga), buy a creepy Victorian-style restored mansion in LA.  As is par for the course, they are a family escaping their past: Mom, Vivian, whose character is introduced during a gynaecological examination (a scenario I can’t bear to watch since Dead Ringers – and I can’t abide Jeremy Irons for the same reason), is recovering from a horrendous stillbirth; Dad, Ben, a psychiatrist, has just had an affair; and their daughter, Violet, is suffering from depression.

We first see the house in 1978, and the opening shot of hanging animal skulls is reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; lest we be in any doubt that this is a dangerous house, there is a spooky little Down’s syndrome girl, Addie, who warns anyone entering the house that they will die. Naturally the house has a sinister basement, and in these opening shots the basement is replete with jars containing body parts pickled in formaldehyde, and a resident murderous infant succubus to boot (although I almost cheered when it gorily dispatched those obnoxious twins!).  When the Harmon family moves in 30-odd years later the body parts have gone, but not the murdering succubus, we fear.  The Harmon family must also contend with Constance, their creepily stealthy next-door neighbour (and the now-grown Addie’s mother); Constance, brilliantly played by Jessica Lange, is a rather disturbing and quietly menacing Southern Gothic belle. The household is also terrorised by a badly burned former inhabitant, a deeply disturbed teenager whom Ben is treating, and a creature in a black rubber fetish suit (The Rubber Man!) who may or may not be alive, and who may or may not be the father of the recently impregnated Vivian’s baby!  Had enough yet?

I know it all sounds rather messy, and indeed it is, but it is really compelling, and quite brilliant, I thought.  It’s glossy and it’s dark, it’s very self-reflexive and it’s totally surreal – we are in true Twin Peaks territory here folks, and we never quite know what’s going on and what, if anything, is real.  Take, for instance, the jolt we get when we discover that while everyone else sees Moira, the housekeeper, as an old woman, Ben sees a sexy young vixen in a French maid’s outfit. When he has sex with her is he having sex with a young woman, or an old lady?  (Co-incidentally, the actress playing young Moira is uncannily like Audrey in Twin Peaks). Also, when Vivian, who has just rediscovered her libido, makes love to Ben for a second time, is it really Ben, or someone or something in a gimp suit?!

After watching the first episode I had a little scout round the internet to see if I could get any more information on the show, and the consensus seems to be that Murphy is saying that American Horror Story, unsurprisingly, isn’t just one family’s horror story, but the entire (American) nation’s.  Indeed, there are numerous (uncomfortable) references to real-life crimes from the Manson killings to the Columbine massacre.

I found the first part of American Horror Story completely fabulous, and, at the same time, completely insane; this is obviously going to be a show where anything might happen, and probably will.  We will see what further episodes bring, but I have a horrible feeling that I’m already hooked.

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