The TV powerhouse that is Ryan Murphy (and Brad Falchuk, of course) took us to a Murder House, through an Asylum, bewitched us in a Coven, subjected us to a Freak Show, checked us into a blood-soaked Hotel, and now has presented us with a nightmarish documentary. His unique anthology series has captivated and disturbed viewers since 2012, making him the 21st century counterpoint to Alfred Hitchcock. Murphy has established a cinematic aesthetic on television that surely inspired the haunting visuals seen on shows like Bates Motel, Hannibal, and Penny Dreadful. He takes risks when constructing his show, both narratively and visually, that leave both critics and viewers torn between bashing it’s absurdity to praising its insanity. His penchant for breaking the television mold has stimulated its landscape. AHS has cornered the market on horror (I would give this acclaim to The Walking Dead, however their risks are centered on shock for the sake of trending on Twitter for a few hours) and along with other shows that champion their genre, i.e. Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot, House of Cards, and Veep, has challenged television writers and executives to up their game.
Each installment of American Horror Story has its own unique form of frightful suspense. The first series, Murder House, provided a solid foundation for the preceding stories. The story reflected the title of American Horror Story; this was your modern American family chock full of issues and secrets who inopportunely bought the single most haunted home on the planet. Here’s my first bit of over analyzing: Murphy said from the beginning that he planned on making multiple seasons following Murder House. The actual Murder House itself is revealed to be hallowed ground, where people who die on its property live eternal damnation within its walls. It’s the foundation of this home that keeps these people from ever leaving; leave the property and what happens? Who knows? Dare you try? With Murphy’s belief that his show would be so captivating and withstanding, the first season’s theme of never being able to leave was also a message for his audiences: you have experienced the Murder House, now you are to live within his universe, his hallowed ground, for as long as he pleases. Dare you try to stop watching?
Murphy slowly dosed us with his sick and twisted ideas (Murder House pales in comparison to the shocking moments we accept like it’s an everyday thing on Roanoke). Season one was the most enticing and interesting season, which I believe is attributed to Murphy holding back on the insanity. Further, the season was based in a reality that audiences could see themselves in. There was no magic, or aliens, or vampires, this was ghosts; a far more believable (and possibly valid) idea. The success of Murder House allowed for Murphy to have more creative freedom and he let it ring. Asylum was a departure from the narrative structure of the first season but followed the same recipe for the chilling fright of a lurking evil. Where Murder House was grounded in both the time we live and your everyday people, Asylum was our introduction to the wicked, and often repulsive inhabitants of Murphy’s universe.
The majority of horror films (and television) rely on the “what’s behind that door” or “what lies in that dark corner” to generate fear in audiences. Murphy has, as I said, a cinematic aesthetic that is both ambitious and sadistic. American Horror Story never slows it’s pacing to service the contrived horror technique. Rather, Murphy presents the monsters to you up front and allows them alone to scare the shit out of you. There is no popping out from the shadows or slow turns of a door knob. AHS thrives on the belief that monsters are everywhere; they’re not hiding, they’re waiting.
Murphy elevates this belief with each season. Viewers have become used to this brand but that doesn’t mean we are accustomed to the level of suspense, thanks to always interesting array of characters. Say what you will about the decline of cohesiveness and inventiveness of some seasons, but what you cannot honestly speak ill of is Murphy’s ability to create uniquely terrifying characters. Asylum was a mess of Catholicism, maniacs and aliens (?) but Lily Rabe’s Sister Mary Eunice, Sarah Paulson’s Lana were phenomenally drawn out and provocative. Coven’s Cordelia (Paulson) and Myrtle Snow (Conroy), Freak Show’s Dandy (Wittrock), Ethel (Bates) and Jimmy (Peters), and Hotel’s John (Bentley), Liz Taylor (O’Hare) and The Countess (Gaga) each enhanced the sometimes disorderly plotlines. The combination of AHS Writer’s talent for creating such extraordinary characters and the actors ability to embody these eccentric beings remains unparalleled.
By nature, writers must enter the minds of their characters in order to write their unique perspective. Actors similarly must do so and often are publicly cited as “becoming” their character off screen in order to fully “embody” them. [ Let the eyes roll at all the method actors out there. ] Then there are the directors who must visualize the nightmare and make it a reality. In the case of Ryan Murphy where he both writes and directs, he combines the ability to enter a characters mind and also create a truly horrific world for audiences to frightfully explore. Is he as mad as the characters he creates? I hope not. But you can’t deny the man has a keen eye for the darkness the lurks within us all. As I said, Murphy is this century’s Hitchcock – a mastermind of horror and artistry who has transformed the way audiences view the genre. Both have distinctive tones, pacing, and detailing that together make each a champion of their craft. The question arises: are they geniuses or monsters? Their goal is to scare and entice us, sadistic? Possibly. But truly, they want us realize that we as viewers of their terror are just as monstrous as they are for creating it. After all, all monsters are human.