I’m writing this at just past 11pm BST, with a nice cup of tea and one of the last episodes of American Horror Story: Freak Show on my second monitor. I’ve never been a horror aficionado simply because I am a coward. I’ve never devoted as much time to the genre as I perhaps should, and normally I would never be able to watch a true horror at night. That’s when it just hit me – not only am I watching a “horror” at night, but primarily as a house we only watch American Horror Story in the dark. Have I finally found my backbone? Not likely. So is it a case that this longer form horror simply isn’t scary?
When I think “horror” the first thing that comes to mind is Ridley Scott’s Alien. This is a film not solely built around shock and gore, but the horror comes from something deeper. It’s a film focused on maternal themes, and the chest-bursters certainly raise an explicit fear of child birth. But what makes the film a success is the tension is raises and maintains across it’s two hour running time. The xenomorph is a genuine threat at all times, and the narrative contrives a reason why it cant be destroyed; you can’t just kill the threat, you can only run away. But each season of American Horror Story is a lot longer than two hours, the shortest is twelve hours, and it gets significantly harder to maintain tension over this increased running time.
In my opinion what separates a good horror from a terrible one is that is during a bad horror eventually the narrative tension, or on screen spectacle, devolves away from fear into ridicule. American Horror Story: Asylum has one of the most unsettling set-ups of any horror I have ever seen. Mental health institutions are inherently creepy in their design; the very setting foregrounds the idea that your brain can betray you, trick you, mislead you. It makes physical on screen the idea that what you perceive may not actually be real. The asylums of the 1950s are particularly horror inducing due to their relative barbarity. This is a period of time where lobotomies and other surgical treatments are common. A time where being homosexual is enough for you to be permanently committed, and submitted to agonising electroshock therapy until you be “cured”. This is the decade where Kesey wrote One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest after all.
But Asylum weaves in other horror tropes into the narrative. Some of which are actually, in my mind, successful. Briarcliff isn’t just any asylum, it’s a Catholic asylum. Forgive me, I’m not a very religiously minded person but it is incredibly easy to play up and warp the rituals of Catholicism for the purposes of horror. The iconography – the nun’s habits, the crosses, the rosary beads, etc. – become engrained into the unsettling mise-en-scene. After all, this is a religion that teaches that all children are born inherently evil. As a result, the series explores this “original sin” within the context of a mental health institution.
Even some of the killers successfully draw on existing horror tropes. There’s Dr. Arden, the nefarious doctor working at the asylum. It’s revealed that he has a past within Nazi Germany, and with the permission of the Catholic priests regularly mutilates and tortures the inmates. He wants to refine the science of torture into an art-form. There’s also “bloody face”, a slasher operating across multiple of the time periods featured in the show known for his distinctive, Leatherface-esque, mask fashioned from the skin of his victims. American Horror Story: Asylum weaves this tropes and killers well, and forms a narrative that in the early part of the season is engrossing, unsettling and tense.
But at a point in the series, it adds one too many tropes and as a result jumps the shark. The main character, played by Evan Peters, has been institutionalised for killing his wife. But he has no knowledge of doing this, instead he hallucinated that aliens killed his family. Brilliant, an unreliable focalisation point in horror is a very effective thing. But all this is lost when the aliens actually turn out to be real. This is such a rapid twist for the series to take. Up to this point, the whole narrative had been about mental health and catholic doctrine, the threats being explored were both cognitive collapse as well as angels and demons. But then suddenly there’s a scene where a metallic, spider-like probe is pulled out of Evan Peters skin. The entire tension evaporates as the show shifts away from the paranormal into a sci-fi realm. It becomes one too many trope for the series to juggle, and as a result the effectiveness of the long-form horror over the thirteen episodes just falls apart.
There’s a lot to like about the early episodes of American Horror Story: Asylum. It deftly wields a wide array of traditional horror movie storylines to create a coherent narrative that is both genuinely unsettling, as well as seemingly ramping up to a bigger threat. But it never reaches this crescendo; the series loses it’s way in the middle and betrays it’s storyline for a trope that it fails to fully incorporate into it’s supernatural plot. Perhaps if the series was shorter, the narrative drive could have been maintained and as a result created something genuinely terrifying. But instead the “horror” is dragged our over thirteen hours, and the narrative cannot maintain it’s pace over such a long time.
American Horror Story never truly lives up the it’s own moniker. It’s simply not scary. Don’t get me wrong, it is certainly unsettling – but this feeling never manifests itself into something larger. Even the very best series, American Horror Story: Murder House cannot truly be called a horror in my opinion. It succeeds by being a character study of people in a scary situation, rather than being genuinely scary in of itself. As a result, I’m starting to question whether or not a horror television show can actually work. More so than any genre, Horror is extremely reliant on both narrative tension and pacing. It is far easier to hold these within a two hour running time, as Alien very successfully does, than the twelve-thirteen hours which American Horror Story attempts.