Now that Television is becoming more international, the greatest cultural cache is knowing what’s good before everyone else. Across the pond takes a look at the great and the good from American airwaves.
My first feature for “Across the Pond” emerges from the one cultural export that, in 50 years when the economic sun finally sets on the empire that was the USA, will still survive and thrive as the endearing ember of a once great nation – halloween. Even in my short life, I have seen this scarefest develop from unique cultural curiosity into the commercial behemoth of blood, gore and candy that it is today in Britain. Online especially, it seems you can’t move on Reddit for shared pictures of Halloween costumes. Even Halloween house decorations have their own “Gangnam style” videos. Just this morning, a goat milk company posted me an email asking me to find the hidden ghost on their website.
Aside from Halloween, the USA’s other gift to the world is quality television. Yet it is rarely that these two talents have combined into anything other than a spasm of horror. The occasional show delves into this arena, most often however the horror is diluted into a different genre, but today I’d like to share with you a series that, though still in it’s infancy, promises to cater for this bizarrely barren market. Boys and Girls, let me present to you American Horror Story.
American Horror Story (AHS) is a show that is dangerously addictive, and for good reason. The brainchild of the creators of Glee, the show is put together with incredible dexterity, it feels like a soap opera with all the useless guff thrown away, and distilled through the skinned face of a murderer. Following the arrival of a family into a prime piece of real estate on the west coast of America, their lives are caught up in a local community of torment and fear.
After an affair almost tore the family apart, they arrive buoyant with expectations in a new town. Vivienne (Connie Britton), a mother who relies on organic produce in an additive free lifestyle, is still desperately angry with her husband, Ben after his affair with one of his students. As a clinical therapist, Ben (Dylan McDermott) offers his services to listen to the fearful, the depressed and the confused who, by financial necessity, arrive in his office located in the house. Their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga), as is so often the case in these sorts of things, is frustrated at being, but once again finds herself struggling with a social life at school and is being bullied for being her unique herself. Not meaning to ruin the show for you, but their hope for redemption is the ignition, and the narrative’s vehicle is heading straight over a burning cliff. Let us watch the beautiful flames dance!
To give you a sense of the scale of horror at play, watching it with my flatmate – who is no pussy by any stretch of the imagination – she has yet to see the title sequence of the show in its entirety; Images of Victorian photographs, skeletons and floating sheets, are suspended over a dense piece of sound design that vibrates your organs at that perfect disorientating wavelength. This show is oozing quality production values
However, it goes beyond that simply visceral fear, as combined with sharp dialogue and well crafted stories, you never for a second question the validity of what’s going on. I had a discussion with fellow NanuNanu-er Christian about the suspension of disbelief in horror recently when we were discussing a film. He didn’t like a horror film that got unrealistic. I contended that you can’t be disappointed if any horror is unreal because it is supernatural – it only has to follow the rules of its own construction. American Horror Story satisfies both camps by knowing it’s own boundaries, and sticking to them – while also keeping itself rooted in a potential reality.
***some spoilers as to what the show is about, but nothing that really reveals anything except the premise***
Okay, bear with me here – I liked to think of it as a strange Deleuzian Soap
Opera – with his notion of “sheets of presence” this idea that time and reality placed on top of each other (I have heavily reduced this idea as it isn’t important); you can in this sense understand the horror of this show not as ghosts but something akin to echoes of the past. I’m not saying it can be real, but I like the idea that it is playing with psychology of the paranormal over an above the dangerous, and vitriolic, after-lives of those who died unjustly.
Trapped within the house, alongside the repeating murmurs of its own history, are motifs of American horror, harmonising the paranormal with slasher films, juggled with those born into injustice, the vengeance of passions, omenic premonitions, shape-shifting ghosts, almost ubiquitously American high-school massacres and misunderstood poltergeist’s – all tied up with good ol’ fashion American Murder.
But of course, the real horror in the show is not the ghosts that trap – but circumstance. Underpinning the show is the background of a financial crisis, made in America, that I believe gives the show its title. No one can leave the house, not because they aren’t allowed – although this does play into it – but because they can’t afford not to be. How many more houses and homes are filled with this torment, entirely real and at play in stress thanks to the horror of a society built on the dreams found only in America.
Even the main thread of the show is defined by circumstance – an era that allowed only abortion’s in back alley’s and basements, or elsewhere a culture that is filled with homophobia, or which shunned those who did not look right, or did not fit in. The contemporaneous malaise of each era plays into the horror of that time, that is remarkable in its self, but like a jigsaw of string, intertwine into a beautiful final conclusion. There is an inevitability finality to the show which, given the fact that all these many stories, shadows in history that come back to haunt the present, are permitted on the merits and dexterity of the show’s creators.
***end of spoilers-y section ***
It’s darkly funny. It’s sexy. It’s mysterious. It’s addictive. But, it’s difficult to enthuse my passion for this show without giving too much away, so there is only one course of action I can prescribe – you should definitely watch this. The cameos are good enough on their own to keep you interested, but try and catch up with the first season now, and you will be up to speed as the second season is only now being broadcast – though as far as I can tell each season is self contained, which makes catching up a real blessing, or should that be a real curse…?
It’s a must-see, from across the pond, and ideal halloween viewing. Here’s the original trailer.