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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Hump-Day Harangue: Did American Horror Story Really Go Too Far?

A few weeks ago, an editorial was run regarding American Horror Story on the very popular celebrity gossip blog Oh No They Didn't (yes, I already became annoyed due to the name of the site.) I immediately took interest, since FX's American Horror Story has held me as willing captive since it debuted the last month. You can read the article here, but the gist of it is that ONTD took AHS to task for the November 9 episode, in which a Columbine-style school shooting was depicted.

The reason for the taking-to-task was that apparently the show went "too far" in featuring such a starkly realistic and reality-based event. The author of the piece, who goes by the nome de blogue of Paris Dior Chanel, felt that it hit far too close to home, and was just too heavy for a show of this nature. Ms. Chanel believes that reality and horror really shouldn't mix, which immediately pegs her as someone who is just not very familiar with the horror genre. Particularly, she seems to find the show to be campy, silly fun which shouldn't get bogged down in real life:
American Horror Story is, despite all of its silliness and overly manufactured mood, an undeniably entertaining show. It's campy and creepy and doesn't seem to take itself too seriously, as it shouldn't. It's not the kind of horror thing that demands we imagine ourselves in the situation in order to be scared, which would require the show to exist at least somewhat within the bounds of the real... It's fun!
Now, I know "fun" horror. In fact, it's become my preference in recent years. I do not find American Horror Story to be "fun". Nor do I find it to be campy. In fact, I'd say one would have to be decidedly jaded and/or cynical to interpret the show in that fashion. Chanel seems to dismiss the show as disposable cotton candy entertainment.

In my estimation, American Horror Story is the best-written horror TV show to come down the pike in years. It's smart and thrillingly executed, filled with brilliant characterizations and real depth of feeling. It's the kind of horror show that is so well-written, in fact, that I think it would still work and be entertaining even if all the horror elements were removed. It is sinister, dark and challenging. True Blood is campy. AHS is not. Yes, Jessica Lange's Constance character does enter into camp territory in the grand tradition of former leading-women playing crazy old ladies in horror films (think Bette Davis and Piper Laurie), but that's about it. I think there may be some preconceived notions here on the author's part, perhaps owing to the fact that the show comes from the creators of Glee?

AHS is gritty, unflinching horror that delves into the human psyche and goes places we're not necessarily comfortable going. That's what it's supposed to do. It's not The Munsters. As such, it is will within the realm of acceptability for Ryan Murphy and company to incorporate real-life tragedy into the mix. As opposed to what Chanel asserts:
Was last night's opening scary? Of course. It was tense and awful. But it wasn't the right kind of scary for this dopey show. The chief (if perhaps initially unintentional on the creators' part) product of this show should be laughter... That's the kind of silly, ultimately empty scare that American Horror Story is best at. A school shooting is not that. That's far too real, far too much of a downer for a dumb Wednesday night.
Clearly, Chanel is viewing the show from a very different perspective from mine. So her opinion of the shooting storyline obviously draws from a very dismissive opinion of the show. If one considers AHS to be silly and dopey, than I suppose I can see how it would be out of sorts for truly disturbing material to be included. Yet I, and many others, find the show to be anything but silly, and its scares to certainly be anything but empty.

There's nothing dopey about botched abortions, mutilated babies, people burned alive and hit-and-run accidents. How about the home invasion and torture depicted in the opening of episode 2? Why did that fit Chanel's limited view of AHS, and not this? As for the scares, they come from places deep and dark; places like parents' fears over protecting their children, the anguish of secrets that won't stay hidden, and existential angst and insecurities common to us all. Empty? Campy fun? Are we watching the same show?

American Horror Story was well within its domain featuring a school shooting. Not only should Murphy and the gang not shy away from such subject matter, but I urge them to keep it coming. I can appreciate light-hearted horror, but that's not what AHS is. The show should remain true to itself, and keep challenging us. If I wanted silliness, I'd have gone to see the Abercrombie & Fitch vampires and werewolves at the movies last weekend.


Jose Cruz said...

Although I wouldn't go so far as to call the show "dumb" or "dopey," I feel AHS gorges itself on some common genre tropes in its mission be THE American horror story. As you say, there's nothing funny about mutilated babies in of themselves, but when you wrap it around a plot involving a Frankenstein-esque surgeon replete with music from Coppola's Dracula... it almost feels like they're trying to appeal to the fanbase a little too hard.

For those reasons I would personally consider the show campy, whether it wants to be considered that or not. The frenetic editing, acting that saunters a little too close to soap opera levels at times... none of this means the show is bad, but I'd have a hard time calling it "deep."

One thing I will say I have a bit of a beef with: the family's emotional status. Upon arriving at the house, they're all internally wounded in some way (father cheats, mother miscarries, daughter cuts). As the haunting kicks in, their situation only gets worse. Perhaps I'm old fashioned, but I think it would have been more engaging to have a family unit who, although maybe not perfect, is still generally happy and close have their lives turned upside down by the ghosts. In the case of AHS, the family was already on the rocks. We went from seeing them miserable to... seeing them more miserable. Perhaps at some point in the future they'll band together to fight back against the horrors around them, but as for now it looks like they'll just go on hating each other. What are your thoughts on this point?

B-Sol said...

That's an interesting point, Joe. I actually think the show is strengthened by having the characters come into the scenario already deeply wounded. It seems to me that they were going for something pretty unique: These characters seem to be taken straight out of just about any solid dramatic series (especially the core family), and simply dropped smack dab in the middle of a horror movie. They are fully drawn characters with real problems and issues that predate their brush with the supernatural--rather than mere cookie cutter victims waiting to be ruined.

Denise @ American Horror Story Fan said...

I believe the real horror in the school shooting piece is that it is all too common these days. So much so shootings at schools are not even televised nationally. Schools are STILL not safe. AHS does an excellent job of reminding everyone that we are still vulnerable.

Improbable Joe said...

I feel like people have this weird media-based notion that certain events are "too big" to ever reference in fiction, which is crap of the highest order. No one said crap about all the other violence, but because America had a national pain-orgasm over rubbernecking Columbine, it should be off limits?

Christine Hadden said...

This is a great write-up.

Personally, I don't think AHS went too far in referencing the Columbine shooting. To be honest, it scared me more than anything else previous on the show. It had me filled with tension and dread and on the edge of my seat - which is right where I like my horror to take me. Columbine was over ten years ago, and though it will never be forgotten, there have been scores of shootings since that one, which only goes to prove that the horror of that reality is unfortunately still alive and well and thriving in our lives today. It was not the first, won't be the last, and I don't feel it is being insensitive to be reminded of it every once in awhile.
That sequence in AHS scared me more than anything I've seen in probably ten years or more. And for that reviewer/blogger who said horror isn't based in reality - they obviously have absolutely no idea what they are talking about, and I agree with you when you say they haven't seen much horror.

Most people are quick to criticize and rip apart horror when they really have no inkling of the genre, which is utterly irritating to those of us who do.

As for AHS being campy, I think there is an element of camp, but it's just peeking out from behind the couch. The show is inherently horror, period. Twin Peaks was campy in its day, but still maintained a nightmarish quality that still had it firmly planted on the horror side of the picket fence.
To say AHS is meant to be funny is a blatant disregard for the excellent writing and stellar production that it is. Yes, there are moments of humor, but the show is horror at its roots. And I am pleasantly surprised at where it takes me each week. Even my husband (who isn't a crazed horror fan like myself) thinks the writing is top notch and can't wait for each new episode. Can millions of people be wrong? No.
AHS is horror, and if someone can't see and appreciate that, they shouldn't be watching.

Anonymous said...

Christine, Columbine happened because of the hell-on-earth that we`ve unfortunately created for ourselves, a world that revolves around the love of money instead of people and a world where bullys are encouraged and allowed to flourish while decent people are laughed at for being decent and recieve no reward for their decency and goodness. Essentially a world that is the exact polar-opposite of the way it was supposed to be, as i said, a literal "HELL-ON-EARTH" instead of the "PARADISE" that we should have.

B-Sol said...

Denise, I couldn't agree more. Thanks for making that point.

Joe, I've noticed that a lot myself, and I've never agreed with that point of view.

Christine, I'm glad you enjoyed the write-up, and thanks for that very carefully considered response. I can tell you're just as much a supporter of the show as I am. And you clearly understand my agita reading that article at ONTD... Oh, and nice job converting the hubby!!

otis rampaging heterosexuality said...

B-Sol, why didn`t you com-girl-t on what the Anonymous com-girl-ter wrote ?, theirs was the most brilliant, profound, and truthful com-girl-t of all ! ! !.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Agree American Horror story is bang on the button. I'm addicted

B-Sol said...

Otis, that would be because the comment had nothing to do with AHS, but was instead a comment on Columbine itself. And also, the commenter sounds a bit like a looney tune.

And Gary, I just caught and loved the season finale!

David Mucci said...

I totally disagree "that they went to far" They push the boundaries for a reason. One being blogs such as this. Publicity! -But I also think American Horror Story is going to go down fast! - It's starting to get too bizarre for the average viewers, and that is what caused the death of Twin Peaks.

B-Sol said...

An interesting point, David, but I certainly hope not. I'm encouraged by the news that next season will feature a whole new cast and location.

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