With the recent premiere of Ryan Murphy’s FOX slasher-comedy “Scream Queens,” there’s been quite a bit of talk about the writer’s other work. That’s not surprising—Murphy deals in the kind of television that’s meant to be talked about whether or not there’s much to say—but some of the talk is outright baffling. Specifically, a number of journalists, in voicing qualms about the tone and style of this latest show, have been turning to “American Horror Story” as an example of a better work of horror television, a symbol of all that “Scream Queens” fails to be.
Now, television commentators praising what they see as ballsy brilliance in “AHS” is not new, nor is “Scream Queens” exactly a work of art. Still, it’s strange to see Murphy and Falchuk’s FX anthology series as an example of something another show should be aspiring to be. In each of its previous four seasons, “American Horror Story” has been a veritable mess, an orgy of misplaced self-love, and a horror show second only to MTV’s “Scream” in how little it seems to understand what actually makes something scary.
From its first season, subtitled “Murder House,” “AHS” has stumbled over a combination of too many narratives and too little to say. Set in a house seemingly haunted by a platoon of disconnected specters, that debut season reads as an edgier version of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, where audiences are treated to one ghost after another jumping out from behind bureaus and under gazebos to let you know that, yes, he or she died here too. The haunted house genre is certainly a difficult one to pull off, and Murphy and Falchuk seem utterly lost trying to make it their own. They’re completely lost as to what actually makes this house evil or scary other than that some bad spooky stuff happened on the property and now a poor new family has to contend with it. In fact, other than the ghosts that have shacked up in the backyard, the basement, the attic, the bathroom, the kitchen, and most likely the plumbing, neither writer is able to make the house itself all that terrifying. Sure, the basement is packed with jars of preserved medical experiments (and prowled by a maybe-demon Franken-baby that’s introduced in the pilot and then left to sit until the show gets bored of its thousand other ghouls), but even all of that is shrouded in darkness outside of the stuttering “Se7en”-by-way-of-Rob-Zombie opening titles. There’s little sense of space or intrigue, as if each room exists in a separate dimension and all the spooks are still figuring out why they’re compelled to stay (outside of plot necessity). When two spectral lovers-turned real estate fluffers (murdered by a dead school shooter in a “Pulp Fiction” fetish suit) throw a tantrum on the house’s front lawn, claiming that the property is theirs, there’s little scary or affecting about it. Should we feel bad for these displaced spirits doomed to relive tragedy day-in and day-out? Should we be unnerved by their connection to their old home? It doesn’t matter because by the end of the episode we’ll have a score of other revenants to sort out, all of whom will provide us with some underwritten backstory to ponder. It’s like a high school reunion of half-baked horror clichés. And this is the sane season.
Things only get nuttier with “Asylum,” which some critics hailed as a step up from “Murder House,” which simply makes no sense. Now we have aliens, serial killers (a Leatherface rip-off and a deranged Santa Claus), a Nazi doctor, and a possessed nun. More troubling is Murphy’s need to up the preachiness, turning his fetishization/demonization of mental illness into a platform to say exactly nothing about racial strife in the mid-20th century. Add to this the most tasteless invocation of Anne Frank since John Green turned her house into Amsterdam’s own cancer patient makeout point, and you have fifteen hours of absolute narrative and tonal chaos. When writers defend “Asylum” (and “AHS” in general) they often praise its use of camp, its anything-goes craziness. But someone should tell Ryan Murphy that one of the keys to good camp is that it can’t take itself too seriously, which “American Horror Story” is constitutionally incapable of avoiding. Season after season the show tries to tell stories about identity and oppression but only ends up using cultural markers of strife as yet another way to slap the viewer back to attention. The program’s latest season, “Freak Show,” builds much of its drama around the notion of its titular freaks as a beset community which must stick together in the face of judgment. Unfortunately, the show can’t decide how it wants to handle its own leering gaze.
With this October’s fifth season, “Hotel,” on the horizon, there seems to be little hope that “American Horror Story” will get itself together. Every season seems to be a hyperactive reenactment of the tail end of “The Shining,” where all of the evil in the Overlook Hotel comes home to roost at once. In Stephen King’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film, however, this outbreak of insanity comes on the heels of slow burn intensity, characters well-developed, and stakes clearly drawn. With “AHS,” Murphy and Falchuk rarely have the time to make their audience care about those struggling with the supernatural/extraterrestrial/just incorrigible. They just want to jump right to the scares. Unfortunately, those scares never seem to come, because when your show is all payoff, deploying bumps in the night like George R.R. Martin does character deaths, you find yourself with increasingly slim dividends. It doesn’t help that characters only seem capable of reacting to the paranormal with either practiced nonchalance or total hysteria. Perhaps this is because even though horror keeps piling up in the Murder House and at the Asylum and among the Coven and out by the Freakshow, there’s little sense of escalation. Stuff doesn’t really get worse; it just gets more. More monsters, more ghosts, more commentary, more killers, more plotlines, less reason to pay attention.