Mythology: American Horror Story
By Martin Felipe
October 27, 2011
This has been quite a year for Halloween programming, with both Dexter and Walking Dead making their triumphant returns just in time for the holiday. It’s been an embarrassment of riches this year, however, as FX treats us to a third horrific offering with American Horror Story.
Well, not to rely on the obvious pun here, but that treat is turning out to be more of a trick. There’s been a lot of talk over the last four weeks about how the show has failed to live up to expectations, despite decent, though not stellar, ratings. I think the failing of the show pretty much boils down to the choice of mythology, that of the haunted house.
You see, unlike an apocalypse or a serial killer, for the horror genre, the haunted house story has a built in ending; they leave the house. So what can a show like American Horror Story do but stall, and stall, and stall…?
And this is exactly what creators Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy do. This, of course harkens back to the criticisms of shows like The X-Files and Lost which postponed reveals of their central mysteries over years, testing the patience of viewers. Murphy and Falchuk, to their credit, parcel out the back-story of this particular Los Angeles haunted house quite liberally, so the mystery of its past becomes clearer week-by-week. No need to wait several seasons to find out what this show’s Smoke Monster is going to be. I have a feeling we’ll have a pretty solid grasp of the mythology by season’s end.
No, what Murphy and Falchuk have to put off is why the Harmon family don’t just leave. It’s among the oldest jokes about two hour horror movies, now they have to come up with plausible obstacles to delay the inevitable, week in and week out. As we go, the relationships evolve, the back-story fills in, all of these things we come to expect from good story telling happen, but what we know to be inevitable, they either leave or they die, just doesn’t happen, and a viewer can’t help but be frustrated, or even worse, bored.
This would be less of a problem were the stalling techniques more inventive. To take Lost as an example, The Dharma Initiative, the escape from the Island, the time travel, all of those things that happen between seasons one and six really are nothing more than narrative postponement, holding off the reveal of the Jacob/Smoke Monster mythology for as long as possible. As frustrating as this may have been for some viewers, for other fans, it provided a fascinating character journey, Island history and sub-mythology.
American Horror Story, unfortunately, is not as clever. They call them homage’s but I’m just going to say it, the show plays like a heap of horror clichés. The unfaithful husband, the mad scientist, the special girl with equally special powers, and so on. I don’t know, I’m not opposed to homage, but you gotta put your own fresh spin on it, and Falchuk and Murphy just don’t. It’s a bland hodgepodge of familiar horror tropes without any unique identity.
Now horror, as a genre, does tend to appeal to geeky fans of sci-fi and fantasy genres such as myself, so it’s not like we’ll stop watching or anything. But with Halloween soon to be over, we just might find the rest of the season anticlimactic, a problem exacerbated by scheduling the second part of a Halloween episode to air after Halloween-frustrating! Shows that have developed good will with their audience like Dexter and The Walking Dead can better weather the post-holiday storm, but American Horror Story is likely to seem pretty deflated for the rest of the season.