American Horror Story premiered in the United States in October 2011 as an anthological television series where each season told a different story with different characters, often played by actors from other seasons. Though, I don’t think that viewers knew that this unique quality of the series was planned. I know I was a bit puzzled at the end of season one, when the thing we all thought wouldn’t happen… happened.
I’m glad I gave it a chance, because as it turns out, it’s an excellent show. There’s three reasons that I decided to start watching it, and I was hoping that the show creators and writers would stay faithful to these qualities that I saw in the previews, because it was very much the promise of the show. Thankfully, it seems that they have.
It can be unsettling.
They’re not afraid to kill, torture and maim people, whether it be lead characters or extras. Death is a theme throughout the series, whether it be the ghosts that haunt the Murder House in season one, the skin-mask wearing serial killer Bloody Face from Asylum, or the depraved torturess Delphine LaLaurie from Coven. In fact, I can’t think of a character that doesn’t have blood on their hands eventually.
It’s the individual moments, though, that truly make you shudder. In the first season after Addie is hit by a car and it appears she won’t make it, her distraught mother drags her onto the Murder House property, desperate to keep her in some way in her life, even if it dooms her to be a spirit forever haunting a dark and evil home. Asylum is crawling with these moments, but a stand-out one in my opinion is when Lana captures Dr. Thredson and makes him watch her perform a coat hanger abortion of the child he forced her to conceive with him. Coven is equally brutal, but one of the best deaths was in the second episode, when Zoe, easily the most innocent of the witches in the coven and as her entreé into the witching world, exacts revenge on a rapist in a fitting manor, by killing him with sex.
American Horror Story consistently delivers these scenarios, where desperation and the accumulation of trauma and abuse leads otherwise normal people to do extreme things. It brings a balance to the more gratuitous violence that is in abundance throughout, without dulling that violence.
It can be sexy.
It can’t be a coincidence that all three of the season’s settings come with matching sexy Halloween costumes (maids and nuns and witches, oh my!). Sex and death are no strangers, and in American Horror Story they are both prominently displayed.
The first season’s main theme was fidelity, so it’s only fitting that the haunted house that the Harmon family buys comes with a sexy maid to tempt the man of the house. Throw in teen hormones and a gimp costume. You can’t go wrong.
Asylum brings the sexy in the devil-possessed Sister Mary Eunice. A once meek and timid apprentice to Sister Jude, the devil inside makes her do bad things, and she quickly becomes one of the best and most compelling characters of the series. There’s just something about someone without restraint.
I don’t think I even have to explain Coven’s sex appeal. Witches, hello!
The actors are top notch.
Jessica Lange easily steals the show in American Horror Story, and it’s no surprise that award nominations are being thrown at her from all directions. She brings such life to these complicated characters, a worried mother one moment, a heartless murderer the next. And she’s not carrying the show by any means, it’s a cast of incredible talent.
Dennis O’Hare won my heart when he tore a newscaster’s backbone out on what’s easily the best moment in the history of the show True Blood, but he was underused in that show, and thankfully in AHS he gets more time to shine. He’s just mesmerising to watch. Sarah Paulson screams like no other, and she does it all the time on this show. Much like Lange, Paulson is adept at playing the victim, the innocent, or the cold-hearted bitch, all in the same scene if necessary.
There’s a stream of other incredible actors that I won’t go into detail on, but they’re all great. Dylan McDermott in the first two seasons was incredible, Kathy Bates in Coven is truly inspiring. The kids of the show, Taissa Farmiga and Evan Peters have excellent chemistry on screen and really evoke that Romeo & Juliet quality of young lovers. There’s really not an actor I haven’t enjoyed watching. The cast is certainly one of the strongest elements of the show.
Start with an anthological series format, then add brutality, sexiness and strong talent, and you get a promising television series. The threat of going stale or being trapped within a storyline is gone, because we know each season is a fresh start with actors that we know and love. This recipe truly gives the show the freedom to explore deeply the themes that it lives in. Season one dealt with fidelity and (to a degree) family. Asylum explored insanity. Coven looks at oppression, bigotry, and marginalisation. All of these themes play perfectly into the genre of horror and allow the show to exist in any time in history, or over a long span of time.
I admit, my eye was first drawn to this show because of Alexandra Breckenridge’s incredibly sexy maid outfit, my interest was piqued by the promise of some dark, depraved situations and I became a loyal fan when I saw how incredible the talent of the show was. In a time where horror is being sectioned off into sub-genres that fail to deliver a truly chilling experience (it’s all boring zombies and excessive gore porn) American Horror Story has created a formula that works. I’m excited not only to finish off Coven, but to find out what the theme of season four will be.
Robb Olson is one half of the Booked. Podcast team. If you enjoyed his column, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and buying The Booked Anthology. If you do you’ll help keep the This Is Horror ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.