American Horror Story Shocks, But Not Like You Think
The ads for Glee creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s new television show for FX were impossible to ignore. There was Coach Taylor’s wife, heavily pregnant, being caressed by a ghost-gimp, there were Dylan McDermott’s abdominal muscles, there was the weirdness of Taissa Fermiga looking so much like her older sister that it almost wasn’t normal, there was creepy music, and the prominently-featured actress with Downs Syndrome. These images combined to create a pastiche of horror movie tropes that were just the right combination of unsettling and promising.
One episode in, I was curious to see if the show could maintain its edge-of-your-seat urgency episode to episode. Two episodes in I was completely besotted with Jessica Lange’s special brand of gothic southern weirdness. Three episodes in I was involved enough to start googling the actors and discovered that Dylan McDermott is Eve Ensler’s adopted son. Now we’ve reached mid-season, and I have spent more time mulling over this show than I have over anything else I’ve watched this season, and for reasons I think are worth examining.
Murphy and Falchuk are brilliant at conceptualizing television shows. They are not excellent at executing these ideas. Glee is a perfect example of this – for every step forward they take two steps back. Their frantic mixture of mind-numbing earnestness and tepid self-aggrandizing meta-theatrics does a great disservice to what is, at its core, a great conceit. Glee has its shining moments, to be sure, but I guarantee you that is because they’ve got one staffer in that writer’s room who is very good at what he/she does.
That writer is nowhere in evidence in the American Horror Story writer’s room, and strangely that makes for more compelling television. Without someone to stand up and go “Vivian and Violet just endured a home invasion and an attempt on their lives by a band of insane folks – there is no way they would stay in this house, and vague ‘money issues’ are not enough to make them,” American Horror Story coasts ahead at a frantic, unchecked pace. It is fueled solely by the “bigness” of Murphy and Falchuk’s ideas. It. Is. Liquid. Insanity. It is story-telling, unleashed. It’s maybe the closest thing I’ve seen in a long time to modern American Camp.
Anyone familiar with Glee can tell you there ain’t nothing Murphy and Falchuk love so much as moralizing. Except for maybe witty barbs that don’t quite mask their self-hatred (read: Zachary Quinto’s role as one half of maybe the most offensively portrayed gay couple I’ve seen on television). Or employing actors with Downs Syndrome in a way meant to read as supportive and inclusive but ultimately reads as, well, vaguely fetishistic(Becky in Glee, Addie in AHS). What I’m saying is they enjoy a lot of things. And a lot of them are pretty gross.
Here’s where I post a ubiquitous “Thar Be Spoilers” warning; so if you haven’t watched the show, aren’t caught up on the show, or plan on watching it later, and would like to keep your mind clean like freshly fallen snow, read no further.
It is the moralizing that perhaps rankles most of all. As the mystery behind “Murder House” (because that is seriously the closest the house comes to getting a name) slowly is made known, we learn that the house was built by a drug-addled doctor whose inability to perform “real surgery” led him and his wife to performing basement abortions. This is all well and dandy until a baby-daddy discovers their business and kidnaps and dismembers their own son, leading the good doctor to Frankenstein the baby back to life using a patient’s heart. I’m going to give you a second to re-read that, and try not to get bogged down in the logic of a man getting so upset at the death of his baby that he murders and dismembers another baby, making him no better than the doctor. You there yet? Cool. The baby’s Frankenstein-ization (that is a word now) leads the wife to shoot her husband and then herself, setting up some seriously bad vibrations in the house and laying the groundwork for murder, death, mayhem, and madness.
What I really want you to take away from the above is the notion that a man who provided abortions is “punished,” and that’s the root of the unrest that serves as the show’s impetus. I really don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the show is anti-choice. This isn’t something groundbreaking or new, especially not within the horror genre. Anyone who watches scary movies knows them to be the ultimate slut-punisher. What’s more alarming to me is that such a formidable television twosome, known for changing the status quo in the world of the little box(the one with a screen, not your vageen), couldn’t be bothered to push the boundaries and truly subvert steretypes in their latest venture, and instead just dress it up as though they had.
If you doubt me, you need only look to Jessica Lange’s Constance. I think this show is an instance of an actor taking something measly and silly and making it remarkable and lovely – I could watch Lange work all day. Anyway. Constance. I won’t go so far as to call her the protagonist – ha ha because she’s totally not – but she is at this point one of three characters (and only one of two living) who we feel any empathy for. This is because, instead of creating a character of the house (which is traditional in a haunted house type film or novel; check out Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House for reference.), Murphy and Falchuk have decided to grant us egress to the house and its personality through Constance, her family, and her ten kinds of crazy, messed actions. It is no accident that we find ourselves rooting for Constance and egging her on, and no coincidence at all that she chose to keep every single child she conceived even when she learned those pregnancies were compromised in one way or another. We are allowed to root for her because the storytellers have deemed her to be a “fighter,” someone strong and worthy of respect, because of the decisions she has made regarding her reproductive rights.
So yeah. I’m essentially saying that, almost unwittingly, the creators have written a show that is anti-choice. This is an interesting twist for two writers who pride themselves on their ability to shock. I think they were much more likely expecting distaste of their beating the Columbine Shooting trope to death, but strangely the story line of Constance’s unwitting ghost son Tate and his love for the still-living Violet has become the most tender, and clearest story arc of the entire season. Whenever we are forced back into the ‘Will Vivian and Ben work out their issues? Is Vivian pregnant with a ghost baby demon?’ storyline, I find my eyes rolling back into my head. Much more interesting is Violet’s re-imagined Winona Ryder-as-Lydia Deats-style-troubled-teen, learning the rules of the haunted manse at the elbow of her undead paramour.