Let’s just get this out of the way, American Horror Story is great. Honestly, the amount of conversations and thoughts about this show could fill not just one book, but several. It’s a complete wonderment, and should be up there with the best made, and most unique things we’ve ever seen come to the small screen. It’s the complete package: phenomenally written; dynamic and memorable characters; great dialogue; well shot; fantastic actors, and to top it all off, it changes its format and setting every season, giving us new characters to love and hate in various places and periods, which means that it never goes stale.
There’s also another fact that makes AHS the bees knees for people like me, it’s a horror orientated show. I know I bang on about horror a lot, but for whatever reason, horror happens to be my biggest passion. I won’t go into all of it now, but suffice to say, horror in whatever medium – books, films, games – gives me joy like nothing else. I know I’m not alone in feeling this but to have a show of this magnitude on the box, with so many people talking about it, means I can get giddy that the horror genre is getting such love and affection.
AHS is chock-full of references, inferences, homages, nods, and tip of the hats to so many areas of all things spooky. Dario Argento, John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, Tod Browning, Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, Wes Craven, George Romero – all of the notable names in horror get a loving tribute in the AHS universe. I honestly can’t tell you how excited I am to sink my teeth into this masterpiece in more depth in the future, because I have so much praise and admiration for it and its creators.
However, because I rank this show so highly on my list of great things, and really want to deliver the love it deserves through my writing, I feel like I should get my pet peeve with this show out of the way first, and that pet peeve is that sometimes, AHS can really forget it’s supposed to be a horror show.
How can that be right? It’s in the title? Well exactly. Now, in all honesty, it wasn’t until I finished the fourth series, Freakshow, that I really started to think about this, because while the first three could stray away from anything horror from time to time, they would always bring it back with something cool. Take Coven for instance; Coven, until I started watching Hotel, was originally my favourite season, but for the majority of some episodes, the story would be more about the relationships between the witches in the coven, and without sounding like a snob, teen-girl drama isn’t something I consider particularly scary. But to counter-balance this, we’re given an incredible amount of horrific scenes including one of the best zombie sieges you’ll ever see. I’m talking way better than anything on The Walking Dead, which isn’t really saying much, but hey it’s popular so what do I know?
Even the first two seasons kept the horror coming in good intervals, never letting the audience forget the foundations upon which the premise is built, horror. But that all comes to screeching halt when we get to season 4, Freakshow. I remember when Freakshow was first announced, the teaser consisted of a crudely painted, white face woman smiling at the camera, and just as the smile hits the tip of your soul, her happiness turns to malice as her face twists into a carnivorous rage and the camera is pulled into a bed of sharpened teeth. It’s horrifying, and got everyone hyped to the point where people started telling one another that this was going to be one of the scariest things we’d ever seen.
So what do we get? Well not much horror, but I suppose you could argue that depression is a form of horror, because that’s what we get instead. I think the problem lies in the fact that Freakshow decides to move away from the kind of supernatural elements that made up a lot of the previous seasons, and keeps all of its heroes and villains as mere humans beings, and while that shouldn’t be a problem, it’s when its mixed with a different style that creates said problem.
The series goes from being story-driven, to being character centered, so it acts more as an analysis than it does as a myth/spook story, and while it’s in no way terrible, it isn’t really scary. I can list on one hand the amount of horror elements in Freakshow, and I just find that a little sad, because up until this point, you could list them on a double side of A4.
Let’s take for example Twisty. When the release date came close, we were given info and images of what was going to be the big scary thing this season, and it was a killer clown. Great, killer clowns are always good for a scare, and from what we had seen in the sneak peaks, that was exactly what we were going to get.
Killer clowns seem to be hard to get right, but Twisty fit the bill perfectly – clad in thick, dirty make-up and a faded suit, Twisty wears a booming smile as a mask and never speaks. This was a great villain. But of course, because this is a TV show, so his terrifying reign is disastrously short, and by episode 5, the writers drop the curtain on him, as well as an anvil at the same time and putting a bullet in him for good measure, because Twisty is given a backstory, i.e. motive.
Now motive isn’t necessarily a bad thing, sometimes it can really work. But considering the subtle nods to Michael Myers the writers give Twisty, I assumed that was the direction they were taking him, and for all those that have seen Carpenter’s classic, you know that means no motive. When creating his killer, Carpenter wants the audience to be as alienated from Michael as possible, he isn’t meant to be relatable – he’s just evil, what more is there to know?
This creates a villain that’s truly scary, making them unpredictable and unknowable, and I share the same view as Lovecraft when I say that the ultimate horror, the very greatest of fears, is the unknown. To me, this would have been a perfect time to utilize an idea from what inspires the show in the first place, but the writers opted for Rob Zombie’s Michael Myers instead.
In the end, Twisty is just another throw-away character that adds to the whole ‘life is nothing but sad here’ vibe the season has. His tale of woe brings the plot to a screeching halt, and we get to learn that our murderous clown is nothing more than a broken down man, one who has suffered through a heavy heat of persecution and loneliness, and one with brain-damage to boot, oh and carrying a botched suicide attempt in the shape of a missing lower jaw.
We actually got a preview of Twisty’s disfigurement in an earlier episode and that could have been the only thing we needed to know about him. With his jaw gone, and his tongue flapping loosely in the air when he takes his mask off, he looks monstrous and inhuman, fitting that ‘unknown fear’ archetype I love. But hey, can’t win them all I guess.
I suppose the creators wanted to go for realism, choosing to focus on the fact that even a murdering, psychotic sideshow clown is human, plus this level of character development is considered the best part of most of today’s popular television, and to create true characters, you have to give them realism. Although I’d argue that this season also features a ghost with a face on the back of his head so realism wobbles here and there, but I get it.
Problem is, it just over-arches the entire series in this thick cloud of melancholic content. No character is safe from being a victim in some form – everything from cancer, homosexual persecution, a father mutilating his daughter, baby-killing, false imprisonment, one of the ‘freaks’ being beaten to death, another ‘freak’ and the best character on the show, Ma Petite being smothered to death – the list just goes on. It’s a never ending endurance trial with your emotions, and by the end of it, you just feel so deflated.
But that’s the point I guess, Freakshow isn’t about being scary – it actually wants to be the opposite. With a title like Freakshow, the audience expects it to be flowing with horrific images and characters, evoking our interest in the peculiar and the strange. But instead of given us what we came for, we’re barraged with scenes that show us just how vulnerable and empathetic these characters are, even the more extreme ones. Thus the audience feels guilty – we came to be scared and morbidly curious dammit, not to feel bad for people.
I don’t really know why I needed to get this off my chest, I’ve always liked to talk about the bad before I talk the good, especially when the good outweighs the bad. And, as it happens all hope wasn’t lost, as season 5, Hotel, was by far one of the best things I’ve ever seen in my life, and I truly can’t wait to talk about it.