We pick apart the true events behind one of TV’s spookiest series.
Peppered with intertextuality drawn from both fact and fiction, American Horror Story is an anthology series created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the chaps responsible for the equally hellish, never-ending musical nightmare, Glee. Threaded with morbid curiosities to titillate both the hardcore horror aficionado and the novice alike, each incarnation strives to differ from the last by transplanting a recurring cast into a fresh setting.
Freak Show, the much-anticipated Season 4, arrives during a golden age of horror television: AMC have just announced a sixth season and a new spin-off for its record-smashing zombie romp The Walking Dead, with 17.3 million Americans tuning in for the Season 5 premiere earlier this month, while Penny Dreadful and Hemlock Grove have both snagged second and third seasons respectively.
What sets American Horror Story apart from the pack is the insular nature of each season. Freak Show has been preceded by the ghosts of Season 1 (Murder House), serial killers and demonic possession of Season 2 (Asylum) and the pricking of witch’s thumbs in Season 3 (Coven).
But intertextuality forms the backbone of this body of work, with each refresh paying homage to a new wave of classical horror tropes via cinematography, music and familiar dialogue from the vaults of Hollywood horror – much to the delight of genre boffins everywhere.
As well as spooky fiction, though, there is also a strong thread of scary fact.
Murder House explores the beloved setting of the haunted house, focalised through new homeowners the Harmon family (Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton and Taissa Farmiga). With influences as diverse as Rosemary’s Baby, Funny Games, Elephant and Frankenstein, Season 1 blends the body horror of birth with the narrative of the house’s bloody history. It introduces the core cast, most notably placing series jewel Jessica Lange as their neighbour, the Southern-belle-turned-to-seed Constance, Six Feet Under’s Frances Conroy as Moira, the maid with two faces, and Evan Peters as an angel-faced teen murderer, Tate.
Season 2 is arguably the most layered: much like Murder House, in which the lives and inevitable deaths of the ghostly inhabitants are explored episode by episode, Asylum skips between past and present to flesh out the character’s backstories. There’s also more fictional and non-fictional intertextuality than Michael Myers has had resurrections: aliens, Anne Frank, mutant cannibals, the devil, serial killers, medical experimentation and the Catholic Church all get a look in, but the pastiche nature of the show lends itself to multiple themes and somehow it all pulls together – although there are certainly questions left unanswered. Like aliens. Why are there aliens?
Briarcliff Manor, the fictional psychiatric institution in which Season 2 unfolds, is based on a bitter chapter of New York state’s history: a 1972 exposé of Staten Island’s Willowbrook State School is replicated almost word for word in the episode Spilt Milk and, much like Willowbrook, Briarcliff also plays host to its own serial killer in the form of Bloody Face (Zachary Quinto). (Incidentally, a documentary about the real life Bloody Face and the exposé of Willowbrook, entitled Cropsey, is available to view on Netflix in the US.)
Sarah Paulson, who fades into the background of Murder House as a somewhat forgettable psychic, stands out as incarcerated journalist Lana Winters, and the calibre of season guests – James Cromwell, Joseph Fiennes, Clea DuVall and Chloë Sevigny – are evidence of the show’s rapid success.
2013’s Coven is set in New Orleans, a city whose morbid history lends itself well to the creepy atmosphere of American Horror Story: fictionalised versions of voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) and NOLA’s answer to Jack the Ripper, the Axeman of New Orleans (Danny Huston), feature prominently, alongside French-Creole killer Madame Lalaurie (Kathy Bates), the socialite responsible for the murder of several dozen slaves in the 1800s.
Season 3 almost manages to break away from the pregnancy theme that runs through both Murder House and Asylum, focussing instead on an ongoing power struggle between teens determined to uncover the identity of the next ‘Supreme’ witch of their coven. Falchuk and Murphy couldn’t resist sneaking a cheeky infertility spell into the mix for good measure, though, which doesn’t bode well for the gender politics of Freak Show: with so many interweaving plot arcs and themes, there’s really no excuse to re-tread the same tired territory.
While part of the pleasure is unpicking the threads of fact and fiction, though, the real beauty of American Horror Story – if such an expression isn’t too oxymoronic – is that each new season is by default completely accessible to newbies. The curious can choose any season as a starting off point, allowing their particular taste in horror to lead the way. As long as Falchuk and Murphy continue to push even the most jaded themes in new directions, American Horror Story will continue to thrive.
American Horror Story Seasons 1 to 6 are available on Netflix UK as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription.
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