Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Sexy Killer Ghosts, or Thoughts on American Horror Story: Murder House

When American Horror Story premiered in 2011 the question wasn’t what the show’s subject, after all, it’s explained in the title but rather, what kind of horror could we expect.  There were vampire soap operas on HBO and zombies on AMC, what was left?  Audiences had no expectations and as a consequence, American Horror Story slipped under the radar as a subversive, sexy ghost story on basic cable.
There were real-life horrors in the haunted house, with school shootings, murder-suicides and flashbacks to the Blue Dahlia murder.  The ghosts were initially hidden from the viewers because they didn’t act like ghosts; they appeared during the day and couldn’t walk through walls.  And the audience was unaware of exactly how dangerous these ghosts were because they could interact with the physical world and actually kill people.  The lines between the living and the dead were blurred in American Horror Story and a new paradigm was introduced.  These ghosts followed rules, but we as an audience would have to discover those rules as the story unfolded.
There’s also a connection between pop music and horror that’s established in the first scene, where the twin redheads Troy and Bryan trash the house in a montage to Tonight You Belong to Me by Patience and Prudence.   Moments later those kids are murdered, on-screen, which showed this series wasn’t playing around.  Connie Britton as Vivian Harmon appears and introduces her troubled marriage along with infidelity, miscarriages, and slashing your husband with a high-end kitchen knife, all before the up to the eerily disturbing opening credits.  Welcome to American Horror Story.
Vivian is a central character to the series, and the opening credit reinforces her role with themes of twisted birth, baby skeletons and warped motherhood, but there are so many fantastic guest stars and memorable performances in a truly ensemble cast.  Moira in particular, the ghostly redheaded maid played in turns by Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under and Alexandra Breckenridge, tries to explain the rules to Vivian, but she doesn’t hear her, or rather doesn't listen.  It’s a clever twist that hadn’t been seen before and was immediately arresting.
Along with Dylan McDermott, Taissa Farmiga, Kate Mara, and especially Denis O’Hare as the Burned Man, and Jamie Brewer as Addie, the breakout star of the series was the almost forgotten Hollywood Screen Legend Jessica Lange, who was reinvented to a new 21st Century audience as a horror star.  Her performance as Constance, the chain-smoking, vitriolic throwback to the 70’s, faded southern belle and failed movie star serves as dramatic foil against Vivian, a function she would revisit with great aplomb in Season Two.
American Horror Story made great use of the dizzying Vertigo score by the Bernard Hermann, evoking a surreal, dream-like quality to the harsh Los Angeles sunlight where the series was set.  The first season explained the rules, introduced the universe and the players.  Murder House would be referenced in future seasons and revisited in Season Four, but at the time I assumed Season Two would continue the story, perhaps with a new family moving into the Murder House.

The first season also introduced fan favorite Evan Peters as Tate, the troubled patient of Doctor Harmon.  He wore all those thrift store grunge sweaters, which seems like an obvious clue in retrospect, but the viewer he’s just another moody teen.  He even mentioned Kurt Cobain, but like Vivian we heard, but we did not listen.


my first novel? thanks for asking:) I wrote a 4 book supernatural martial arts series concerning the ongoing feud between a group of kung-fu killer witches in san francsico’s chinatown.