This post contains spoilers. I really can't stand having a show spoiled, and I think people who do it without warning are hot bleach douches. So please understand that if you read on, you WILL find out what happens during the first season of American Horror Story.
This is not, I repeat NOT, a review meant to titillate and encourage you to rush out and purchase the DVDs. Nobody is paying me do that. It's a discussion meant for people who've already seen it to nod along knowingly with as they politely agree with me, based on their prior knowledge of the show.
There's also a Soylent Green (the movie) spoiler in here.
Got it? SPOILERS AHEAD.
Let it not be said that I'm a douche.
I'm a fan of the horror genre, and I'm generally not a fan of television. So I was pretty skeptical of American Horror Story, but I kept seeing comments like "ZOMG, American Horror Story, Y U NO warn me? Ffffuuuuu." No, nobody said that. Exactly. What I'm saying is that it shocked and amazed them into making use of cheesy internet nemes. (It's like a meme, but specifically with wordplay or acronyms.)
So I watched and I became one of the people who posted things like, "Oh my god, this show is so fucked up. I love it!" And I did. It horrified me. The reason it did is that it plays on a few basic human fears really well. It builds them so they all creep up on you and you don't even realize what it's doing until you're watching gape-mouthed and horrified as a woman eats a goat brain.
Even the opening credits are farking scary:
There are four basic fears (in my opinion) at the heart of this, and really the last one is probably not technically a phobia, but look, it's late and I need to get this posted. Anyway, here they are:
The fear of basements essentially boils down to just one thing: do you know what's in yours? As in right now, do you know what or who is in your basement? Really? When was the last time you checked?
Remember earlier today when you went upstairs, and the front door was unlocked? Wouldn't it have been so easy for someone to slip in the front door and down to the basement? Now he'll just wait, and listen. You'll move around your house and through your day, completely unaware that he's eight feet below you the entire time. Maybe he's flipping through your old CD collection, or admiring the bra you left on top of the dryer. Using your WiFi to check your Twitter updates on his cell phone. Maybe he just replied to you. As he stands right below you with his hand pressed to the ceiling above him, just a few inches of synthetic fibre separates his hand from the toe you're tapping on the floor as you sit and read this.
See? Basements are scary. That's all I'm saying. It's a very good place to start for horror. What it lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in effectiveness. And all of the problems for the Harmon's begin with whatever it is in their basement.
2. HOME INVASION
My security company told me that home invasion is the single most feared event. I forget exactly how that was phrased, but basically, that's what people shit their pants over in real life.
Not only is the premise of American Horror Story essentially a permanent home invasion--these ghosts are in your house and there is not a god damned thing you can do about. Or they can do about it. And you're invading their house right back. Everyone is being invaded in the one place where you're supposed to get to feel safe.
But also there are multiple more literal home invasions during the first season. The first episode, in fact, begins with a break in. The neighbors and other former home owners are constantly coming in uninvited. Actual real psycho wacko murderer types invade their house. Ben's former girlfriend shows up at the door (while she's alive, I mean).
The dead tenants are just as threatened by home invasions as the living ones--perhaps even more. There's just a perpetual lack of safety in one's own home being portrayed, and it's horrifying. It's awful to watch and want to scream at your TV, "Don't go in the bathroom!" or "Why would you leave your daughter in her bedroom alone?!? Are you an idiot???" That is basically the most terrifying existence imaginable this side of the Atlantic.
3. GHOSTS/SPIRITS/WHATEVER YOU WANT TO CALL THEM
The beautiful thing about this is that the show begins with just a single ghost, the maid, and accompanying her, whatever that thing that killed those boys in the basement was. And you don't really know if maybe it's not just all one thing anyhow.
I loved the way the writers built the cast of characters gradually. For many reasons, obviously, it made it easier to get immersed in the show than it would have been if we were overwhelmed by a huge ensemble cast. It also made it more--ahem--believable to begin with a small ectoplasmic infestation and watch the colony grow.
As each ghost is added to the ensemble, the horror grows exponentially, as we realize it wasn't just one little ghost in the basement. There's a freaking undead village down there and they have no idea. Toward the end of the season, they began to divide these characters more clearly into good guys and bad guys, and I think they've probably set up some cool possibilities for next season. Or maybe next season is when the shark comes and they all take turns jumping over it. I hesitate to make wagers.
When it comes down to it, what people are afraid of is people. And what the American Horror Story ghosts become is people. (Which is funny because normally people become ghosts.) They aren't caricatures. They aren't poltergeist. They're people, with twisted, dark, sometimes very malignant--but always understandable--motivations. You don't think to yourself, "Whoa! Psycho ghost!" when they decide to steal a baby, or kill an exterminator so he doesn't find a body, or rape someone. You think to yourself, my god, how could someone do that?
And the answer is never, "Oh, only a ghost would do that." Never. All of the acts perpetrated by the ghosts are things that we fear having another living human being do to us. Or maybe even things we worry we could do to someone else if we were pushed too far.
It's like they say, Hell is other people.
But then so is Soylent Green, so sometimes you get your revenge.
I have to say one thing about American Horror Story: if it ended now, I'd be happy. It feels complete. They hung a piece of it out over the cliff at the end of Season 1, of course, but I don't even really care about that. If they called it a day, burned that in HD and shrink-wrapped it tomorrow, I'd buy it and watch it over and over until it wore out. For more on my feelings about short series, someday I'll discuss British television.
I could definitely level some criticisms at American Horror Story, but any and all of its faults included, I still think it was the single most enthralling, best-written series I've seen on American television in years. Granted, I don't watch a lot of TV. But it was way better than Whitney.