In the wake of nuclear Armageddon, the only things to survive will be cockroaches, Cher, and American Horror Story. A new season of Ryan Murphy’s beloved batshit pantomime is upon us and with it another spate of iconic GIF-able moments interspersed with long stretches of perplexing storytelling choices. This year’s theme might be the apocalypse, but for American Horror Story it seems the end is far from nigh.
When the show made its debut in 2011, it felt like something of a successor to True Blood, due to its irresistible cocktail of sex, supernatural goings-on, and a whole lot of gore. But while True Blood became a hot mess teeming with too many ideas in its later seasons, American Horror Story started out that way. Throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks is in the show’s DNA, and also a key component of its lurid appeal. This is never more evident than in its second season, Asylum, which balances storylines about a serial killer, illegal Nazi experiments, demonic possession, and alien abduction, and somehow still manages to deliver a narrative arc that is cohesive and emotionally satisfying.
Now entering its eighth season, American Horror Story has become a bona fide pop culture phenomenon, with a lot going for it. An anthology format which prevents stagnation by hitting the reset button each year, a distinctive visual style, and a stable of prestige actors who are clearly having the time of their lives. And it is upon the casting that American Horror Story lives, dies, and lives again; this is a show that thrives on fresh blood.
Some fans were uncertain that the show could survive the departure of Jessica Lange, whose performances anchored a couple of wildly uneven seasons. But as with all things Ryan Murphy, American Horror Story zigged when everyone expected it to zag, casting pop superstar Lady Gaga in its fifth season; the sensibilities of the show and the singer-turned-actress were so simpatico that she ended up winning a Golden Globe for her portrayal of The Countess. More recently, the inclusion of Leslie Grossman and Billy Eichner (both known more for their comedy chops than drama) injected new energy into Cult. And this latest season welcomes the glorious Joan Collins into the fold, another actress whose personal brand fits perfectly into Murphy’s ever-growing pantheon of leading ladies.
There has always been an affinity between horror, powerful female characters, and queer audiences. “Horror is the genre of otherness, and who understands that more than queer people? It’s a genre where the outsider can rise above, fight back, survive,” says Michael Varrati, a screenwriter and host of the queer horror podcast Dead For Filth. “There’s an appeal there, it’s why we’re drawn to final girls. Laurie in Halloween is the antithesis of her friends; she’s still finding herself and who she wants to be. American Horror Story is a little different because the queerness of the show is baked into its foundations due to the number of queer people involved in its creation. They bring their love of horror, which already has a queerness to it, and add their own truth to it. It’s celebratory of powerful women. It’s a heightened world where witches walk with the gait of drag queens, where Stevie Nicks and Jessica Lange hold dominion, and we celebrate that the same way we worship at the altar of Cher or Madonna. American Horror Story is relatable to queer people because it proudly says the world itself is queer… and that’s not horror, it’s who we are. And it’s delicious.”
But sometimes, even all of these attributes are not enough to distract from Ryan Murphy’s worst impulses. Take the character of Madame LaLaurie in Coven, played by Kathy Bates. LaLaurie is no fictional character; Murphy plucked her from history (along with New Orleans voodoo queen Marie Laveau) to act as a foil and secondary antagonist to the girls of Miss Robicheaux’s Academy, and more memorably, to explore the monstrous acts of torture she inflicted on her slaves. But a storyline like that comes with baggage. It is right there in the show’s title, after all; slavery was a real-life American Horror Story, the aftereffects of which are still felt in modern society. A favourable reading of this storyline might suggest that Murphy was attempting to shine a light on his country’s dark history; multiple characters in Coven vehemently condemn LaLaurie’s extreme racist violence. But the show also revels in depicting the brutalisation of black bodies in living Technicolor, reducing a very real atrocity to yet another one of American Horror Story’s many blood-drenched set-pieces.
Sexual violence is another real horror that gets turned up to eleven in the world of the show. The suffering of women is hardly a rarity in the horror genre, often functioning as a mechanism that enables grisly catharsis in films like The Last House On The Left and I Spit On Your Grave. Of course it would be naïve to expect a horror show not to include violence, and often the women who go through hell in American Horror Story come out the other side triumphant — but the sheer frequency with which Murphy resorts to rape as a plot device (Murder House, Asylum, Coven) or mere set dressing (Hotel) feels increasingly puerile, and frames the show-runner as less Grand Guignol master and more teenage edgelord. When the only shocking thing about a TV show is how predictable its shock tactics have become, does it have a future?
The first episode of Apocalypse has already laid out a number of recurring American Horror Story tropes: an atmospheric central setting; a pair of young lovers whose relationship we will be expected to root for despite them only spending five minutes together on-screen; social commentary which might have been zingy two years ago; and most frustratingly, exposition in the form of voiceover which skips the hard work of “show, don’t tell” and instead sets out everything a character is feeling. We just need a serial killer to complete Ryan Murphy bingo.
And yet despite all of that, it’s hard not to be pumped for Apocalypse. With Jessica Lange returning, and Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe and Taissa Farmiga reprising their respective roles from Murder House and Coven, this season promises to finally dovetail the show’s sprawling mythology. Pepper’s storyline in Freak Show confirmed that all of these characters exist in the same universe, but it will be interesting to see if and how the show will address people being played by the same actors within its own canon. Are doppelgangers to be added to the current rogue’s gallery of vampires, witches, ghosts, and demons?
Most exciting is the appearance of Michael Langdon towards the end of the first episode; the unholy child born in Murder House seven years ago is now all grown up and sporting a hairdo straight out of Interview with the Vampire, ready to raise hell in the most over-the-top fashion possible. With the Antichrist himself walking the halls of Outpost 3, we could be heading into the messiest season of American Horror Story to date… or maybe this Apocalypse will burn down everything that came before, and usher in a new era.