First Impressions: American Horror Story (FX)

American Horror Story seems to already be a polarizing television series. For some, the show makes no sense and has no purpose. For others, there's enough compelling horror imagery to suggest a greater story than the pilot/first episode gets into. The Harmon family moves to San Francisco for a fresh start. They purchase a beautiful 20th Century Gothic-styled house (and Art Deco detailing, for whatever that's worth) with a dark history. The previous tenants died in a murder-suicide. But it goes deeper than that. It seems no family has ever survived living in this beautiful house for very long.

By the end of the pilot, all three of the Harmons have experienced something off in the house. The mother has butted heads repeatedly with their kleptomaniac neighbor. The neighbor's daughter repeatedly warns Vivien Harmon that she will die in the house. The father, a psychologist, has already taken on a disturbing client who came out of nowhere. Ben Harmon is being stalked by a burned man who used to live in the house who also warns him to get out. The daughter, Violet, befriends her father's new patient and sees a plan for revenge against a bully go beyond the realm of earthly possibility in the basement of her new home. In essence, everything is wrong but no one gets it yet.

Here's what I think series creators Ryan Murhpy and Brad Falchuck are going for. There has always been a certain school of horror films that relies on nightmare logic. What I mean is that the ending will not always line up with the beginning, but continuity was never the goal. Do people really watch a film like Carnival of Souls and complain that all the things that happened to young organist Mary Henry don't make sense? Of course they don't. She wound up in a living nightmare where mood, theme, character, and imagery supersede plot.

Most recently, this style has become a major factor in Japanese, Chinese, South Korean, and Thai horror films. Where other countries--like France, Spain, Norway, Germany--seem to aim for innovation through gore and shock, Japan, China, South Korea, and Thailand have been aiming for something more visceral or enigmatic. The point of this kind of horror film isn't who did what and why; the point is getting under the audience's skin and making them feel discomfort. You get the big picture of the story but don't necessarily understand all of the details. They stick with you, though, for years to come. If you want a really great breakdown of how this style of film works, you should read Rich Juzwiak's post about Hausu, complete with screengrabs, animated gifs, and a whole lot of confusion. Spoiler: he really likes the film in spite of it not making sense.

So how does this nightmare logic style apply to American Horror Story? Pretty clearly. I think what the show is doing is playing with the notions of perspective and memory. No two people will ever see something happen and view it the exact same way. It's physically impossible. The show punches this up by twisting how characters remember and see certain things that happen on the show. For example, when Vivien Harmon is approached by the woman who claims to be the long-running housekeeper for the estate, she sees an old woman. When Ben sees the housekeeper, he sees a young woman constantly trying to seduce him. Part of this is the ghostly nature of the character. However, I believe a big part is an introduction to this perspective/memory play before it becomes essential to the overall story.

Later in the pilot, Ben and Vivien have an argument about why they're fighting. For Vivien, she cannot erase the thought of her husband cheating on her shortly after she lost their baby. For Ben, he cannot erase the memory of his wife pushing him away when he was grieving the loss of their child. She says he was insensitive; he says she replaced him with a lapdog. She says the sky is BLUE; he says the sky IS blue. In other words, they both know what happened. The just view it in such different ways that they will never agree to even the most fundamental detail about their ordeal.

The more graphic content of the show is a mixed bag. The violence, so far, has been shocking. It's not gratuitous, except for when it is. By that I mean that the violence is only over the top when we're seeing it filtered through a character's perspective rather than the eye of the camera. It's one thing when Violet gets a big cut over her eye after being attacked at school. It's a very different thing when Violet begins seeing something very strange in the basement when the lights go out. The effect is this interesting play on how violence is perceived by different people. Someone might hardly bat an eye when he gets cut while someone else will completely lose their mind because someone else is scratched. I'd say that--if the show continues in this way--there is a good balance to the nature of violence on the series.

The sexual content is more troubling. When it's a scene of seduction between the housekeeper and Ben, it's one thing; when Ben is just randomly walking around the house completely naked, it's quite another. The first example is plot. The second example is just a cheap thrill. Unless something comes out in the next two or three episodes to explain why Ben is always naked, it's not going to gel right. It's a risk that I don't think is quite paying off at this stage of the game.

As I predicted a few weeks ago, I think American Horror Story is going to be a must-watch show for horror fans. The question is whether or not this audience can be expanded upon in week after week of nightmare logic. The big horror series of the past have either been very specific in their aims--erotic vampires on True Blood, zombie survival on The Walking Dead, paranormal murder/mystery on Twin Peaks--or weekly anthology shows with no overriding plot-- Twilight Zone, Friday the 13th, Night Gallery. I'll assume that FX won't just pull this show if the ratings aren't quite up to snuff because of their past relationship with Ryan Murphy. It might not get a second season, but I think this season will be given a chance to conclude.

What do you think? Sound off below.

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