To me, the strongest form of horror is that which relies upon atmosphere and suspense. That mystery of the unknown, of what lurks in the dark shadows of our world, can chill the imagination in a way that plays with an audience. However, sometimes a person’s appetite may look for something more shocking, more lurid. From the days of La Theatre du Grand Guignol to the modern splatter film, there has been a desire in some for a serving of horror that comes with buckets of blood and grotesque imagery. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with this subgenre of horror. There can be a powerful impact of horror when delivered in a visceral punch, just as much as there is a risk of overindulgence in gore and torture. Nothing quite exemplifies that double-edged sword much better than American Horror Story, especially in capturing the highs and lows of such an approach.
Created by Ryan Murphy, American Horror Story is an anthology horror series with an interesting hook to it. While each season would have many of the same actors, each season is centered around a different story line with a different theme to the horrific subjects it would present. The first season, known as Murder House, follows a family in 2011 that moves into a new home which turns out to have a horrific history. The second season was Asylum, set in 1964 within the halls of a mental institution and following the lives of its patients and doctors. Third season gave us Coven, set in 2013 and centered around modern-day witches who are being hunted down one by one. The fourth season, Freak Show, went back in time once more to 1952 and to a crumbling freak show struggling to survive. Currently, the show is in its fifth season, known as Hotel and set in 2015. This season is focused around the inhabitants of the Hotel Cortez, from the ghosts who haunt its halls to its vampiric owner to a serial killer who has arrived at the hotel. Now, such variety should offer plenty of interesting possibilities, right? Well, there are some rough patches that come with this show.
Firstly, subtlety is something that the series lacks. It is present to varying degrees in Ryan Murphy’s other shows, but it is especially present here. Though the gore and brutality may be layered on thick, most of its character tend to be rather shallow. In fact, a lot of the directing and writing tends to lead things into the realm of melodrama and camp. The story lines in the show can also be scattershot, offering a lot of possibilities with it almost being a guessing game as to what will be developed and what will be dropped. There will even sometimes be a new addition to the story that arrives in the last few episodes and is gone just as quickly as it appears. As for the figures of horror, there is a scattershot approach to there as well, with the range of horror figures sometimes opting for a kitchen sink approach. For instance, while Asylum had a location that was ripe with horror possibilities which fit that theme, it ends up pulling in demonic possession, alien abduction, mutants, and Nazi science. Having such a loose gallery of horrors in relation to the main theme feels distracting. With all of these flaws, the result is a show that can frequently be shallow and melodramatic, grotesque without any true scariness to the proceedings. Of course, there are times when the series can take its flaws and handle itself in a way that is enjoyably engrossing. For me, I find that Freak Show has been the strongest season of the program.
There are a variety of reasons that Freak Show, at least for me, represents the potential of what it can offer. For one, it manages to spend time to develop characters that one can feel sympathetic towards, instead of just punching bags made for the nightmares. Along with that, all of the horror elements that do crop up throughout the season all fit the theme of a carnival or freak show. From a murderous clown to con men seeking to kill freaks for money, from a strongman with a violent temper to the ghost of Edward Mordrake, all of these figures of terror fit with the theme. Keeping the scare focus on theme and providing a story that gives time to develop sympathetic characters also gives the actors something more substantial to work with, in turn garnering stronger performances. Even Dandy Mott, a spoiled brat of a man whose desire to join the freak show turns to thoughts of vengeance when he is rejected by them, serves as an entertaining figure of camp rather than as another weak link in the show. He is sharply written, exemplifying the worst of a manchild with wit along with a performance by Finn Wittrock that can appropriately scale from quiet and playful to tantrum-throwing threat. In a way, Dandy Mott represents what the show can be when it allows itself to develop quality material along with indulging in its excess: campy, blood-soaked, and a delight to watch.
The truth is that American Horror Story probably won’t really become a classic in the horror genre. For what it is, warts and all, the show can be a shallow but enjoyable melodramatic snack to sink your teeth into…when it’s pulling itself out of the clutches of its own excess and is willing to strengthen its themes and its writing. If you want to watch it, American Horror Story airs on Wednesdays at 10 PM. It is available on Netflix and Hulu, but both currently only offer the first four seasons.