Context: This is a review and brief look at the FX original series American Horror Story. At the time this review was written only five seasons had been released, while the series is currently about to wrap its sixth season.
For five years the FX original series American Horror Story, created by Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, has gotten under viewer’s skin in a way that few recent horror films have. The series itself is a mixture of scares, snappy dialogue, memorable characters, and even as outlandish as some scenarios are, the show still keeps a lot of its most terrifying moments grounded in reality. The show finds a way to turn our favorite characters’ continuing nightmarish misery into an entertaining, self-aware, and thoughtful piece of entertainment, instead of simple torture porn.
Critics and audiences have responded very favorably to the series over the last five years. I think a large part of this show’s appeal comes from the writing, acting, and the likeability, or “watchability”, of the characters. The characters, though involved in typical horror movie situations, feel more like typical people as opposed to the self-obsessed idiots that usually dominate horror flicks these days. Plus a scene-stealing Jessica Lange doesn’t hurt the series either.
Another part of the show’s appeal is how it smartly references and changes the typical tropes found in horror films, while also connecting these tropes with aspects of life your average viewer would recognize and relate to.
The first season is spent with a troubled family stuck in a haunted house while attempting to fix a broken marriage, dodging ghosts, psychotic former flames, and a nosy neighbor along the way. Smart viewers could easily draw parallels between the increasingly dangerous house and the increasingly bitter family that pulls them further apart from each other. As the ghosts in the house threaten the lives of each of the family members, their own personal metaphorical demons come back to haunt them. For example, the husband was caught having an adulterous affair by his wife a few months after she suffered a miscarriage. While staying in the haunted house he has to own up to his mistakes as his wife finds she has become pregnant, a fact that scares her, but terrifies the audience more since we know something is deeply wrong with the house and it won’t stop until it’s destroyed everyone around it.
The second season, labeled American Horror Story: Asylum, takes place in (you guessed it) an asylum for the mentally insane. This story covers a wide variety of subject matters from mental illness, race, religion, and even alien abductions.
The third season draws parallels between a coven of witches in New Orleans and the South’s history of racial discrimination and violence. A coven of teenage witches is paralleled with a raunchy fraternity, typical high school cliques, and even the KKK (don’t dwell on this metaphor too long, it’ll only confuse you).
Each season is basically a self-contained mini-series with its large number of characters played by a typically reoccurring cast, so the characters in each season aren’t related, but the show cleverly acknowledges each actor’s past roles on the series (for example, one actor’s character is a psychiatrist in one season, but then he plays a dangerous patient in another season with several shots composed to replicate and mirror those from another season.)
The fourth season revolved around a freak show in the fifties with such colorful characters like a bearded lady, a young man with crab-like hands, a three-breasted woman, a pair of conjoined twins, and a killer clown.
The fifth season, American Horror Story: Hotel, took place in (you guessed it) a hotel, loosely based off of the real life Cecil Hotel near Skid Row. The stylish season featured sex addicted and drug addled vampires, ghosts, serial killers, and lots of shots of Lady Gaga pandering to the audience with a deadly stare.
If you can handle the terror, be sure to watch this series on Netflix or other platforms.
The sixth season premiers Wednesday, September 14th on FX.