I have previously discussed on my blog how each season of American Horror Story typically starts strong, and the season six premier is no exception.
The creative team behind the show made the decision to keep the theme of this series a secret until about fifteen minutes into the premiere. A brave, but effective, decision that removed all preconceptions from the material and made the show seem fresh for the first time since season three. The macabre mystery being explored through the paranormal this time? The Roanoke Colony – an attempt by Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh to have a permanent English settlement on the west coast of America. When Raleigh returned three years later his expedition found nothing but a single skeleton. To this day historians still don’t conclusively know what happened and it remains one of the biggest mysteries in modern American history. American Horror Story has mentioned real world events and killers before, but this is the first time the narrative is solely based within the confines of an honest-to-God mystery; it’s a new attempt at historical fiction, and this is a brilliant direction for the show to go in.
The grounding of the narrative within a historical event seems to suggest this series has learnt from it’s sister show – American Crime Story. The nature of historical fiction implies an attempt at reconstruction rather than the construction of a narrative. It’s a retelling of a story, much like the OJ Trial, rather than the construction of a narrative from horror tropes that American Horror Story is much more at ease with. But even more brilliantly, the premiere openly places this faux-reconstruction at the forefront of the narrative through the edit. Made to appear like the sort of schlocky, real-crime show my mum will watch on a cable channel at around 2am, this season revolves around a frame narrative of survivors explaining the horror they experienced through a series of talking head interviews. As these interviews narrate the series, there is an in universe reconstruction acting out the events on screen. American Horror Story eschews the typical trappings of historical fiction by making the reconstruction literal on screen. In a brilliant meta-reference most of the actors in the “reconstructed narrative”, like Cuba Gooding Jr and Sarah Paulson, even appeared in American Crime Story. The reconstruction of historical horror is hidden by reconstruction that references another reconstruction – season six of American Horror Story is brilliantly post modern.
It’s probably clear by now that I really enjoyed this episode, perhaps more than any other episode of American Horror Story. It was a fantastic, compelling hour of television based around real horror and modern metafiction. It was simultaneously unique whilst calling reference to existing horrors, such as The Blair Witch and Straw Dogs. Horror is very hard to maintain across a long form series, and American Horror Story has a very nasty habit of jumping the shark at some point, but after a premiere this promising I really hope it doesn’t.