Where the Horror Never Stops

I’m not a Ryan Murphy fan — neither increasingly grim plastic surgery nor singing after-school specials are really my jam (though I love me some Brittany and Santana) — but I admit I’m intrigued by his new show, American Horror Story, about a couple who, in the wake of a miscarriage, move to Los Angeles for a fresh start only to find out that their new house is haunted. He’s already hit the obvious button with all his might by declaring that “the monster in the closet is infidelity,” which should be a change for star Connie Britton after the end of Friday Night Lights. And I’m less interested in this show in particular than in the possibility that it could take horror shows mainstream.

Glee succeeded less by founding a new genre of television show, or firmly establishing it for the first time, than by revitalizing a genre that’s had its ebbs and flows. America has always been pretty fond of its musicals. But with the exception of Twin Peaks, if that counts, I’m hard-pressed to think of a horror television show that a) develops a story from episode-to-episode rather than being a showcase for one-offs, b) that is considered a television classic, c) that is scary in the way that horror movies are scary and visceral. So American Horror Story, if it works, could break new ground even if it’s on cable TV rather than the networks, where you’d have to compromise quite considerable on sex and violence a la Buffy to avoid the wrath of the FCC.

I’m curious about horror in part because I have an extremely hard time watching it myself, and am tentatively working towards understanding it better. When I was quite young, a friend’s mother read me a graphic novel version of Frankenstein that shook me so deeply that I had very traumatic nightmares for a long time, and I tend to avoid the kind of imagery and scenarios that would trigger those kinds of dreams again. I’m trying to get better — I did survive all of Drag Me to Hell in theaters, and I’m planning to see the Straw Dogs remake, if that counts as horror. So take everything I’m about to say here with an enormous grain of salt.

But I do wonder if there’s something about horror that’s better suited for movies than for television. It’s hard to sustain the tension of a horror action sequences (is that the right thing to call murders? Or attacks?) from week to week if you’re cliff-hangering them. It’s a genre that involves getting incredibly wound up incredibly quickly and then getting a fairly quick release. It’s hard to buy the idea of a family staying in a house of horrors for a long time before they get killed or are driven out of it, unless the terrible things that happen to them are calibrated in such a way that they’re either drawn into the darkness or don’t realize what’s going on for a while. And I also wonder if some of the social issues that horror movies bring up, like extremely violent sexual assault, or violent crime, are the kinds of things that mass American audiences can only bear to look at for a short time, and which, psychologically, we need our pop culture to provide quick resolution to. There’s a difference between watching Doctor Melfi get raped, knowing she’s alive, and watching her struggle emotionally with the consequences of that assault over a television season; watching two teenage girls get raped, tortured, and violently murdered, only to have their parents rape, torture, and murder their killers in return for two hours in a movie theater; and watching extremely violent, or extremely tense things happen over 12 to 22 hours. For certain kinds of very bad things, we tend to demand that our pop culture anesthetizes us with distance, or salves us with revenge. It’s not that you couldn’t spread out I Spit On Your Grave over a 12-episode season, but would you want to?

Obviously Buffy worked, but that was in part because the show was very funny rather than straightforwardly frightening or shocking, because it was a procedural where at least some monsters were vanquished every episode, and because the special effects were calibrated at a point where they were immersive enough to suspend disbelief but not realistic enough to be genuinely disturbing. For American Horror Story, and any successors it has, I imaging much will depend on what tone the show settles on, and how precisely it manages to stay on whatever sweet spot it finds. Given Ryan Murphy’s tonal track record, that may be difficult.