Now this may not be as groundbreaking an admission as, oh, say, admitting that you are erotically transfixed by kangaroos, or that you are secretly the patriarch of two families who know nothing of one another, but it’s still something.
See, horror fans typically get lumped in with sci-fi nerds who speak Klingon and peculiar sorts who get runes tattooed on the top of their feet and dream of a better tomorrow in Middle Earth. But the thing is, it’s not the same at all. I don’t wear more black than the average person and my face isn’t perforated by metal rings nor decorated with eyeliner and pancake makeup.
I’m not a “goth,” as it were; I just like scary movies and books and television shows. I like hearing ghost stories told around a campfire and I like reading them with the lights off and I like watching something just scary enough to make me a little fidgety, something that gives me the wholly ridiculous notion that some dude with an axe is just hanging out in the guest room closet.
I’ve been this way since my mother was irresponsible enough to let me watch Freddy Kruger at an impressionable age and since I was strong enough to lift (and subsequently begin reading) Stephen King’s It.
So it was with high hopes that I began watching FX’s original series American Horror Story. It isn’t often that television attempts a series in the horror genre; they come few and far between, and generally, not without reason. Building a serial program of worth about ghosts and terror is tough. Ghosts happen, and then they don’t. Rare is an engaging tale that spans a time period of any tangible length.
If people are terrified by a disembodied spirit haunting the shit out of them, they typically move. I mean, wouldn’t you?
AHS tackled any sort of ongoing continuity issues by (SPOLIER ALERT) killing everyone and starting anew.
Gone from season one is the creepy, Victorian murder-house in Los Angeles where the sinister doctor performed basement abortions. It took with it the tormented psychiatrist (Dylan McDermott), his wife (Connie Britton) and their daughter (Taissa Farmiga). Gone too is the delightfully evil neighbor (Jessica Lange, who won a Best Supporting Actress Emmy—one of the show’s 17 Emmy nominations) and her mentally disabled daughter. Her son Tate (Evan Peters) was dead long before the series began, but we didn’t know that until midway through the season.
And therein lies the rub.
Everyone was already dead or died at some point in the series, but in a “BET YA DIDN’T SEE THAT ONE COMING!” style of categorically lazy writing, the same twist was used over and over again, almost to the point of unintentional comedy.
But what the writing lacked in imaginative solutions, it more than made up for in creepiness and atmosphere. The silliness—and there was more than a handful of it—was offset by the quietly sinister psychology of fear. For the most part, this wasn’t a slasher-style romp through a campground stuffed with sexy teens. Though the show had its fair share of blood, jarred fetuses and hard-to-look-at burn victims, this was primarily a horror built around desperation and emptiness, about the sickness of human emotions and relationships.
On that level, the show worked really well.
And so it’s back for a second season, only nothing is the same. Instead of a house, everything takes place in an asylum. None of the characters remain, though in a semi-unprecedented turn, some of the actors are back playing totally different people.
The Emmy-winning Lange is here as Sister Jude, a sadistic nun. Zachary Quinto, who played the darkly sassy Chad in season one (previous owner of the house, gay, dead from the get-go) is back as Dr. Thredson, “a psychiatrist with groundbreaking treatment methods that go against Sister Jude’s.” Evan Peters, who previously starred as disturbed school-shooter Tate (a patient of McDermott’s; again, secretly dead from the beginning) is now Kit Walker, accused wife murderer and self-proclaimed alien abductee. Rounding out the cast is Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under/ sometimes sexy one-eyed maid from AHS season 1) and ultimate hipster indie actress Chloe Sevigny.
So things are kind of… weird. Weird not only because the show itself is built off of unease and frightful things like asylums or gothic murder houses, but also because we’re supposed to forget everything about all of these people and buy into the fact that they’re now someone different. On the same show. But a different one.
That’s going to take some acting.
The good thing is, the acting was generally decent in the first season. Lange was nutty and dark and cruel and totally believable as a failed wannabe starlet with a bevy of emotional issues. Britton (now on ABC’s Nashville) was a classic Rosemary, right down to the satanic baby. Peters was a revelation as the brooding, poetic dead kid who simply wanted acceptance, love, and a girl who would join him in the after-life. McDermott was solidly understated and fragile, a consummate human in an existence wrought with other-worldly turmoil.
Better than the acting was the atmosphere and darkness, and, because there were no major changes amongst the creative team, this isn’t likely to change. Psychological horror can transcend plot-holes, as evidenced by the first season’s shortcomings, so it doesn’t matter that the spook is no longer occurring in an imposing house; aren’t asylums inherently scarier anyway?
And so it is with trepid excitement that I’ll begin watching season two. With a first season both engaging and frustrating, season two seems like it can go any number of ways. Either the asylum setting and new plot will push this show past the line of “good” and into the realm of “outstanding,” or the massive cast and obnoxious quirks (Adam Levine?? An alien abduction??) will cause the show to flat line.
Either way, I’ll be watching.
To talk about American Horror Story, baseball playoffs, or just to call me names, follow me on Twitter, @StanfordWhistle