Imagine a horror story that was longer than a movie, longer than a single episode, a horror story made of horror stories. Now turn that narrative on its side am stretch it along the Z axis. This story has more than highs and lows in a linear progression, it has depth. The characters, yes even the horrific antagonists, are rich and complicated. When a character dies, they are not so much ripped from the narrative so much as evolved. They continue to Influence the plot as the undead, memory, or consequences. Imagine a horror story with more consequences than death, maiming, and one night of scares. Some characters fall like angels, some are hardened into warriors, while other still are tested and found saintly.
If you imagine all this, you have a rough idea of the show American Horror Story.
I marathoned the first two seasons with my cousins over break. I'm letting the third one finish up, for now. What I found surprised me. While I am a fan of horror, I can be very picky about what I like, not too many jump scares, characters should not be too hopelessly clueless. What I love quite well is well developed writing and this show drew me in with that. While some characters are obviously good, few are obviously evil. Evil in the show is mostly presented as an adjective of human action instead of a noun, where there are inhuman forces, their actions are incomprehensible or neutral. There is, in season two, a demon but the demon is played as fallible and personable (though not sympathetic) as any human character. At one point the Demon is frustrated that a human character accomplished more depravity than it. Humans are the center of this story, and most of the plots arise from human decisions and conflicts.
The first season is fascinating. While trying not to spoil any details, I believe I would be fair to say that the story revolves around a broken family moving in to a haunted house. The ghosts of the house antagonize, befriend, and complicate the issues of the family. While there are some jump scares, the horror is derived from the incredibly rich mood the show develops. There is a sense of mystery, exploration, and illusion. At several points my cousins and I debated who was a ghost and who was not.
The show set very few procedures, but one I enjoyed was that the scenes before the credits were typically devoted to showing you the history of the house, the demise or development of a character who would factor heavily in that episode. The development and choices of these characters are generally the major plot movements of the episode, or else the development and choices of the established characters on response to those so highlighted. Despite the horror and misfortune, the joyful note on which the season ends is unexpected and enlightening. It is quite the pay off.
I was happy to find that the second season, titled American Horror Story Asylum, was a completely different story. It is a multi temporal affair, taking place mostly on the early sixties, with development throughout the season and in the end that takes place in the modern world. This season hooked me especially hard because I find insane asylums, where reality and society are at their most malleable, to a particularly frightening. Specifically, the idea of being unjustly committed to such a prison like facility whose staff norther sympathizes with not trusts you is particularly engaging to me, and I was delighted to find a central character experiences exactly that. (Spoiler) A perfectly sane reporter is institutionalized by the head nun of the Asylum to keep the former quiet about their abuses occurring there. What is more horrifying is that the charge is real: the reporter is committed for her lesbianism, the papers signed by her lover after said nun threatens to take the relationship public. Already this Nun is established as a character of terrible cruelty. And yet, there is the possibility of redemption. (End spoilers).
This second season also combines numerous different horror elements. Slasher-murderers, demons, alien abductors, and mad scientists all have a part to play. Seeing these antagonists interact injects humor to a show in which humor is no stranger. The plot twists are also more pronounced in this season, trust and sexuality are much larger themes, and navigation of these themes lands characters in surprising situations. Insanity, not as a moral failing but as the expression of a mind under stress, is also a theme. The show initially shows the inmates through the eyes of outsiders, chaotic and frightening. As the show progresses deeper in to the experiences of inmates in the asylum, the inmates (and even the staff) are shown increasingly sympathetically. The real horror is not the demon, the aliens....it's how we treat the inmates and how unprepared society was to deal with the psychopathy of the slasher.
I was surprised by how good American Horror Story was, not because people don't speak well of it (they do), but because I could not imagine how it could be this good. This show uses horror in an ongoing television drama better than any other show I have seen. In fact, where other shows fail to continue a sense of horror and interest throughout a season, American Horror Story succeeds. This is mostly in part to the depth of the characters. The antagonists are not unknowable monsters, what is human and sympathetic about them is highlighted. If they are not sympathetic, they are intricate, figuring them out provides an audience with accomplishment. The show shines in its human and dramatic elements, mixing drama with horror masterfully. I look forward to marathoning the third season eventually, when I can evaluate the claims that that season (American Horror Story Coven) is written in a way that is both racist and unfair to practitioners of voudou.