In Praise of American Horror Story

Roy Ward

Aliens and Demons and Nuns, Oh My! – In Praise of American Horror Story


There’s a pretty extensive list of (mostly American) TV shows I keep telling people I really want to get into, but just haven’t had the chance to do yet – Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, 24, and until very recently, American Horror Story. When I first heard that Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, creators of Glee, had created a horror-themed television show I was sort of baffled. I mean sure, watching Mr Schuester rapping to Kanye West’s ‘Golddigger’ is horrific, nobody could dispute that; but surely the saccharine sweet nature of that show cancelled out any real terror. I remained hugely sceptical until I heard the positive reviews and saw that the cast included the incomparable Jessica Lange. Plus I bloody love a good scare.

Eventually I caved in and gave the pilot episode a go. Within the first few minutes of the 1970’s-era prologue we see some creepy ginger twins enter a dilapidated old house and get murdered by someone (or something) just off-camera. It sets the tone pretty well for the rest of the first season – plenty of black humour, scary moments and a whole lot of “what the fuck is going on?”. Season one, retrospectively titled American Horror Story: Murder House, is your (stereo)typical American haunted house story, replete with ghosts, horrific Frankenstein-esque homunculus toddlers and a really scary gimp. It makes for addictive viewing as almost every episode ends with the revelation of another tiny piece of the puzzle- on several evenings I sat down in front of the television with every intention of watching just one episode, only to crawl into bed shortly after midnight having gone on a multi-episode binge.

The plotline, or more accurately plotlines, are fiercely compelling and uncompromisingly complex, and by the end of the twelfth episode much has been tied up but there’s so much left hanging in the air. Many of the main characters may be dead but in Murder House that doesn’t mean they’ve gone anywhere – they stick around to decorate Christmas trees and scare off the new owners. And next door, the Antichrist has just murdered his babysitter. There’s still a whole lot of creepy going on. So when I found out that the second season of AHS would deal with a completely new locale and a completely new storyline, I almost felt cheated. Many of the cast would return, but as brand new characters – and Jessica Lange would be among them. Ok, sold.

I will freely admit I am fond of hyperbole, but when I tell you that American Horror Story: Asylum is probably one of the greatest TV dramas ever made, I’m being deadly serious. Set in Briarcliff Manor, a mental hospital in Massachusetts in the mid 1960s, the second season deals with mass murderers, demonic possessions, alien abductions and Nazi war criminals across 13 terrifying episodes. Jessica Lange literally deserves all of the Emmys and all of the other awards ever for her portrayal of Sister Jude, the authoritarian nun who runs Briarcliff with an iron fist. Her story arc across the season takes her from a massive bitch you love to hate to an individual you find yourself genuinely rooting for, and it’s a testament both to the talents of the writers and to Lange’s acting ability that this never feels forced or artificial. Her final scene in the season finale had me sobbing into my fat-free yoghurt. Not even ashamed.

Season 3 is looming on the horizon, and earlier this month at Paleyfest 2013, Ryan Murphy revealed that the title for season three would be American Horror Story : Coven. He also let slip that the series would be at least partly shot on location in its new setting of New Orleans, and that Academy Award winner Kathy Bates would be joining the cast. And Jessica Lange is returning, which is basically all I needed to hear to know this is going to be incredible. Murphy added that he wanted to see “a lot of scenes with Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates going at it, so that’s what you’re going to see.” Awesome.

You’ve got a little while to catch up on American Horror Story before Coven starts – so what the hell are you waiting for? But when you start sleeping with the lights on and checking behind the shower curtain every time you go to the bathroom, don’t say I didn’t warn you…

About Roy Ward

When Roy was 7 a girl tied him to a tree and tried to set him on fire. He now lives in Leeds with his boyfriend. These facts may be connected. Vada's Deputy Editor, he loves pop culture in all its forms, plus feminism; drag queens and Nigella Lawson. Find him on Twitter @badlydrawnroy.

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