Beware of the Scare
The following is a review of a Netflix series and does contains a few spoilers. I might also point out that American Horror Story will not be to everyone’s taste and many of the scenes are close to unwatchable. There is however a theme running through the series reinforced by high production values which takes it beyond the gore and frights of the genre. It is Horror after all so watch at your own risk
Meaningful & Gratuitous
Horror is not my favourite film genre by a long stretch, though I do enjoy a good cinematic scare from time to time. I’ve seen most of the classics – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, some of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween franchises, The Blair Witch Project, Nosferatu, Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining… too many too mention, so perhaps I am a fan after all. I do, however, prefer my horror to be meaningful rather than gratuitous, so was shockingly pleased when we started watching the Netflix offering – American Horror Story.
There are Nine Seasons* in all – 103 episodes – making this, in sheer number of episodes alone, the Horror genre big brother of Game of Thrones (60 episodes). Each season is themed around a cliched element of the Horror genre – a murder house; an asylum; a New Orleans witch’s coven; a hotel of lost souls; a travelling freak show; a fly on the wall documentary a la Blair Witch Project and the one we are currently watching (season 7) which has inspired this blog – a contemporary story called ‘Cult‘, an acerbic satire on American politics which opens on the night of Donald Trump’s election victory in November 2016.
A History of Blood
It was during one of the earlier seasons, Freak Show I think it was, that I realised that the series works on more than the obvious level. It contains many of the horror genre tropes – Haunted houses; demented Nazi doctors; scary ghosts, vampires, seductive witches, demons and beasts; serial killers; two-headed women; killer clowns; homicidal hillbillies; startling and shocking sex scenes; gruesome bloody murders and ritual slaughter. It is dressed in high production values, highly stylised set design, razor sharp dialogue and a spine tingling soundtrack. But what else it does is use the horror genre to tell a story of America.
"Purification Through Violence"
Each season’s tale is set in it’s own present, be it the 1930s, the 50s, 60s or 2016, but uses clever flashbacks to tell the backstories that haunt the plots. Some of these threads take us back to the early days of colonial America where Salem Witches from the 1600s still haunt a gothic farmhouse in the 21st century or where an African voodoo witch casts spells over psychopathic slave owners. The damaged and disabled characters of the 1930s carnival freak show battle against bigoted yokels, mega-rich sociopaths and a ghoulish specimen collector out of Jupiter, Florida – but the “show must go on” regardless of the bloodshed – and suddenly you realise that this is the story of the flipside of the American coin that runs concurrently alongside the narrative of Freedom, Liberty and Democracy: Genocide, slavery, the glorification of death, or as American journalist, theologian and political commentator Chris Hedges calls it, “purification through violence.”
Lifting the Mask
Guns, knives, tomahawks, flaming torches, pitchforks; a victim tarred and feathered, bibles, ropes, and the adoption of animal skins and masks as ritual and disguise all form part of the American Horror Story, as they did, and often still do, in real life America – the masques of the Mardi Gras, Halloween costumes, tattooed faces and bodies, tribal war paint, the pornstar’s make-up with lipstick like a slashed-throat and the dark circled eyes of a Mexican sugar skull; the coonskin cap of Daniel Boone out-grossed by the pig’s head masks worn by the jaw-dropping, unspeakable hillbillies in My Roanoke Nightmare (Season 6). Every element of these episodes reflects, in some small way, a dark part of the American story.
Elements of this series borrow from other genres and directors too. There’s a lot of Martin Scorsese in American Horror Story. For example, the way the camera slow-pans toward horrific scenes teasingly revealed under neon lights behind a sensual and tense soundtrack in Hotel (season 5) reminds me of Taxi Driver, as does the stalking of politicians in Cult, just like Travis Bickle. Gangs of New York is referenced in the form of a character called the ‘Butcher’, played here by Kathy Bates, and the various gangs like the Dead Rabbits, dressed in firs, armed with clubs and knives. There are graves dug for dead people stuffed in car boots as in Goodfellows. The sets, particular the Hotel Cortez, are straight out Stanley Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel in The Shining, which of course pays tribute to Stephen King, one of America’s greatest authors of Horror. The Podcast, dramatised-documentary style of horror is epitomised in season 6 Roanoke, which is a cross between Tiger King, the Blair Witch Project and hidden camera ghost-hunter exposés such as Paranormal Activity.
Making Horror Sexy
The American Horror Story uses an ensemble cast of actors, many of whom star or appear in several, if not all seasons. The actress Jessica Lang steals the show in the first 5 seasons, in many ways reprising the sexy, flawed character she played in the Postman Always Rings Twice, a story of desire and murder set in 1930’s dustbowl America, despite being almost 40 years older. Sarah Poulson has appeared in every episode we’ve watched so far, playing characters as diverse as an Investigative Journalist trapped in an asylum, the unsettled ghost of a drug addicted suicide victim, a two-headed woman (co-joined twins) in a travelling freak show and a Lesbian Hillary Clinton supporter horrified and in shock after Donald Trump’s victory in 2016.
American Prometheus - creating monsters
It’s this particular season - Cult - that confirms this as a journey through American history and culture. Trump’s election was the watershed moment in the American story, where History collided head on with that Culture, live on TV for all to see. Trump, as the character he plays in real life, was given birth to by TV and has grown into a peculiarly American type of Frankenstein’s monster – a compelling creature that both horrifies and astounds, amuses and appalls. In four years he has not only upset the Establishment but has divided the Republic along jagged sectarian lines and a babble of Identities, the allegiances of each torn between religion, race, gender and class. Where Trump got it right however, was in identifying the huge reality gap between the Establishment and the working poor, for whom life is an endless emergency. Although Donald Trump only appears in this series as a real life person on TV news clips in the background, his persona as an political agent provocateur is cast like ‘Twisty the Killer Clown’ who terrorises the plot in a couple of AHS Seasons. The difference is that Trump cajoles, mesmerises and casts spells upon his victims and followers rather than dismember them as Twisty tends to do. In Cult, Trump is channelled through the thoughts and actions of Kia, a young, politically engaged anarchist who embarks on a destructive journey towards power.
Th... Th... Th... That's all folks
American History has two narratives – one is about the creation of a shining beacon of freedom and democracy, the other is a story of ruthless violence, greed and money. But as real life has recently shown, angry men with battle flags, mystical tattoos and buffalo-horned headdresses can and will try to claim ownership of their fragile democracy and haunt the Republic’s very existence in a story that is still unfolding. As for American Horror Story, The Series – The next and final season after the one about Trump is called Apocalypse.
*The Ninth season, 1984, is currently not available on UK Netflix
saltymick (author) on January 20, 2021:
Go for it mate, watch it! It's best horror on Netflix. Thanks for the positive comments.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on January 19, 2021:
What an enthralling review of this incredible series. Unfortunately I have only had the opportunity to watch a scattering of episodes of American Horror Story so far (most in the Jessica Lang seasons) and none of the more recent “Cult” season. I hope to rectify this, and this article has convinced me to do so.