When I started watching American Horror Story at the beginning of the season, I think I was as perplexed as everybody else by the number of ghosts who crowded out the regular human cast. All of the different puzzle pieces were shocking and controversial—a gimp in a latex suit, a maid who “belongs” to the house and fluctuates in age between her twenties and sixties (and in personality between sluttiness and stark formality), and nurses in bloody uniforms. It was reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but the story was fractured, as only one aspect could be presented in a forty-or-so-minute episode, and I could only marvel at the strangeness and irregularity of the pieces. At one point, the story wasn’t gelling for me, and I was going to quit watching the series. There’s only so much time and so many series out there. Right before I was about to quit, though, the story started to come together in some sort of coherent fashion.
Now that the series has progressed, and I’ve seen the different decades of stories acted out on the stage of the haunted house, I’ve been thinking about the series’ title American Horror Story, and how all of the stories represent America or American. The series can be quite clever, but I’m not sure how far it can continue now that it’s given away all of its conceits.
All of the stories revolve around the character Constance (tartly played by Jessica Lange), an aging Southern belle who sits like a fat spider in the middle of this web, sucking everybody dry within her reach. She’s a ruined beauty who’s destroyed her face with too much plastic surgery, whose words are honey sweet, but if she doesn’t get her way, she’ll flay you to the bone.
Constance’s children are a wise-young daughter with Down’s syndrome, like one of Shakespeare’s fools who speaks the truth in nonsensical lines; a teen son who’s a psychopath, part of the rash of school shooters taking out classmates with multiple weapons; and a deformed but good-natured ogre locked away from the public.
When the traumatized Harmon family first moves into the centerpiece of the story, the house, husband Ben (Dylan McDermott) and wife Vivien (Connie Britton) are trying to heal their marriage after infidelity, along with their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga, sister of Vera Farmiga, who has inherited her older sister’s acting chops). Constance inserts herself into their lives right away—chasing or looking for her daughter Adelaide (Jamie Brewer) who is attracted to the house.
Constance wants the house. She has lost so many of her children to it, and I suppose she wants to be around them all the time. Shortly after the Harmons move into the house, Vivien finds herself pregnant with twins after a sexy night with her husband and the gimp ghost (who she thinks is her husband coming back for a second round). That act galvanizes the house and its ghosts as they move to claim each member of the Harmon family, one by one.
There are two settings overlapping in American Horror Story—modern LA and all of the stories and ghosts from the past that have overtaken the house. However, with each episode, more and more of the human cast join the undead. With each new ghost that pops up, it makes me wonder, What’s the point of using modern LA as a setting? At this rate, Constance is the only human left, and though she is a fascinating character, she cannot carry the series alone in modern LA. That leaves the house as a setting, describing a limbo between heaven and hell, but I’m not finding this very gripping now that all of the ghosts are explained. They can relive their tragedies and interact with other ghosts, but there’s no new ground to cover.
A story must have parameters; that’s what makes a story. You have a beginning, a middle, an end, and the story is complete in and of itself, but a series is always trying to bust out of these boundaries. I think probably one of the goals of a series is to go on infinitely, but I find American Horror Story to be overreaching.
The series’ creator Ryan Murphy has said with the conclusion of this season, he will be focusing on a new haunted house and new ghosts and human characters in the second season of American Horror Story. I’ll dial up a few episodes on Hulu when it starts to see if this is working. I have my doubts, though. The UK series Skins did quite well with a revolving cast, but that fit the season cycle since the show follows school-aged kids and they do graduate and go off into the world. I’m not sure how much more I can get invested in another season of American Horror Story if everybody’s going to be killed and claimed by a haunted house.