The FX TV series American Horror Story presents an intriguing portrait of America in the new millennium through the distorting lens of the Gothic mode. Essentially a haunted house story, the series (now 2/3 into its first season) refuses to play by the rules or adhere to the mythology of the sub-genre. Instead, it careens into camp, surreal weirdness, and mindfuck mystery, inviting comparisons to shows like Twin Peaks, Lost, and Six Feet Under, while evoking and invoking Tennessee Williams, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, and any number of horror movies—from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining to The Amityville Horror to Psycho to The Entity to Rosemary’s Baby, and so on. Its mashup of homages and allusions, framed squarely in Gothic mode, points less to the postmodern condition than to more serious ruptures in the bright and shiny veneer of contemporary American life.
Eric Savoy has pointed out that the Gothic mode, with its obsession with the past and its fetishization of the dark and ugly, seems incompatible with an optimistic, forward-looking nation. He theorizes that the persistence of the Gothic mode in American literature makes manifest the contradictions of the American dream, undoing the illusion and illuminating its shadowy, unpalatable recesses.
Gothic narratives are also often interpreted as allegorical enactments of real contemporary fears, allowing cathartic and safe encounters with evil and danger. Thus a story like Invasion of the Body Snatchers can be remade and reread as dramatizations of the paranoia of the McCarthy-era Red scare, the intrusive intimacy of New Age emotional dynamics, the deadening effects of conventional family units, or the distrust of government institutions.
As in many American haunted house stories, the family at the center of the TV series is stuck with the house not because of ancestral ties, but economic necessity. They have acquired the large old house for a fraction of its cost, and even then cannot afford to give it up, given the recession and the current state of the American real estate market. This family (having moved from Boston) faces the constant threat of being dissolved. The wife has caught her husband in an affair and suffered a miscarriage, leaving their only child, a teenage daughter, feeling neglected and lonely. As with other ghost stories, the hauntings literalize the characters’ repressed emotional and psychic traumas.
However, the series spins this conventional Gothic set-up into new territory by fleshing out (in many ways) the dead as well as the living. The ghosts here are more than fleeting apparitions, given not just backstories to explain their haunting, but also storylines in the “present,” in which they are aware of their suspended animation in the house, and take action to attain specific goals in the real world. When the motivations and psychologies of ghosts are revealed and dramatized for audiences, the treatment is often comedic (as in, say, Blithe Spirit, or Heart and Souls, but this series, notwithstanding a prevalent tongue-in-cheek attitude, maintains the Gothic mode, primarily by leaving out crucial bits of information and by flouting accepted conventions of ghost hauntings.
For one thing, the ghosts of this series are unsettlingly corporeal—appearing to different characters separately, often without the usual cues to signal otherworldliness. The ghosts also behave like poltergeists, moving objects around and breaking things, but are also capable of much more. They conspire with and assist the living in committing crimes, they have sex—in one case impregnating a woman, in another taking a teenager’s virginity, and in an outrageous case performing an extreme circumcision (on a minor character unrelated to the family, and who therefore should not be subjected to the hauntings).
The violation of genre rules has the effect of turning the series into a puzzle narrative that keeps viewers guessing at the underlying logic of mysterious events. This impulse created and sustained the fan base of Lost (and Heroes, at least initially), and American Horror Story observes the same principles, each episode introducing new information that refutes or calls into question prior assumptions and conclusions. In effect, the stable framework of the Gothic genre is rendered unstable. The qualities that differentiate the worlds of the living and the dead are blurred here—the show’s biggest surprises often involve the revelation that a character presumed to be living is actually dead. As such, the audience cannot be certain of where the boundaries are.
This uncertainty is crucial to maintaining the Gothic mode, since the audience has been allowed to understand the sources of terror (familiarity tends to neutralize fear). But it also suggests that the fears of America and its attitudes about the past and history have shifted as well.
David Punter characterizes Gothic fiction as fostering in its readers a paranoia arising out of uncertainty about the sources of fear in the text. In destabilizing the conventions of the ghost story, American Horror Story suggests that the ultimate fear arises out of the creeping notion that the once-familiar world is no longer behaving as expected. While zombies may be a potent metaphor for the recession, this show seems to be channeling the disbelief and outrage of Occupy Wall Street—its roots in the realization that powerful institutions are acting against the interests of the powerless, and its perpetuation as more information comes to light, and as predictable but unbelievable (at least in mythical America) steps are taken by the powerful to retain their power. American Gothic has always exploited the monstrous injustice lurking just beneath the surface of the American myth, but this time, the normative white middle-class population is affected, and the myth is effectively ruptured at its core.
Tellingly, the show’s characters are overwhelmingly white, despite its being set in Los Angeles. The only two characters of color thus far are minor, though they fit significantly into the pattern. One is a developer of Armenian descent (referred to as "Persian" by another character at one point), depicted as an opportunistic immigrant, one who can afford to buy the house and tear it down to build a parking garage (“building on top of someone else’s life,” as another character puts it), and who therefore meets an appropriately gruesome end. The other, interestingly, is the African American security specialist who comes to represent safety to the embattled matriarch, and begins to exert a sexual attraction on her after she has separated from her husband. He is a normalizing force, summoned at the push of a button when things get too crazy to handle, bringing the levelheadedness and calm that comes with experience with the frightening and threatening.
Despite the disturbing and dangerous events that happen to the central family in the house, they are unable and/or unwilling to leave. The house then seems to function as a domestic metaphor for the nation, recalling Lincoln’s “house divided.” Called “The Murder House” by a “Haunted L.A.” tour guide, it has been the site of various violent homeowner deaths, and it is these homeowners who terrorize and deceive the current ones, acting upon them and using them for their own ends. The house itself, a magnet for destructive energy, is not an agent of harm, but its inhabitants turn on each other, even after death. The current homeowners, rendered helpless by economic misfortune, must endure the terror and perhaps eventually succumb to the evil. In a consumerist society, being stripped of the power to spend or buy one’s way out of an unpleasant situation is a real fear, one that plagues a growing number of Americans. The unacceptable option of living in poverty and debt even as others luxuriate in plenty could very well be the American horror story of this century. The show’s latest plot twist, involving a complicated scheme to create a ghost baby, suggests that the undead who populate the house are hell-bent on subsuming all occupants, even the succeeding generations.
As the show has progressed through its first season, it has gradually revealed itself to be less a ghost story than a puzzle, and this might be how the show’s creators can prevent viewers from turning away. The chief pleasure of the mystery genre is the eventual restoration of order and balance through a neat solution. Already, questions set up at the beginning of the series are being answered, and the logic and rules of this version of supernatural haunting are becoming clearer. In this way, American optimism will be allowed to triumph over paranoia. It’s hard to imagine a pleasant ending for any of the characters here, living or dead, but the reassurance of understanding what has been going on will compensate for tragedy. It will also enable closure and transcendence, which pave the way to forgetting.