This post discusses some extremely basic plot points for American Horror Story: Asylum.
Of all the genres I wish I appreciated more, the one I have the most regret about is horror. An early encounter with an extremely violent graphic novel version of Frankenstein gave me childhood nightmares and a life-long aversion to being deeply frightened by my entertainment. I mustered up the courage to see my first horror movie, Drag Me To Hell, several years ago for a long piece on the recession in movies, but nothing’s pulled me back since. I’m aware that in staying away from horror, I’m cutting myself off from a tradition that’s rich with explorations of our darkest social anxieties and pathologies, from violence against women to immigration. But it’s been very difficult for me to justify subjecting myself to images that upset me so deeply to get to the substantive ideas expressed by them.
Somewhat to my surprise, this season of FX’s anthology series, American Horror Story, is prompting me to try again. The second mini-series from creator Ryan Murphy, this time set at an insane asylum in 1964 New England overseen by the Catholic church, with its central mystery the identity of a killer of women who skins his victims, is at the very outer limits of my tolerance for violence. But its exploration of sexual taboos and repressed desires is more deeply felt and certainly as frightening as Bloody Face, as the killer’s been dubbed by a morbidly obsessed public, and much more interesting than the buckets of blood and organs sloshing around in the space between those themes.
At first glance, it looks like American Horror Story is pitting the mostly-innocent and not necessarily insane inmates of Briarcliff Asylum against its proprietors, most notably the severe Sister Jude (Jessica Lange). There’s Shelley (Chloe Sevigny), incarcerated as a nymphomaniac, her head shaved for punishment, mostly on the grounds that she has a high sex drive. “Men like sex and no one calls them whores. I hate that word. It’s so ugly,” she tells Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), who appears to have a more serious set of problems than some of his patients. “I like sex. It’s my crime.” Kit Walker (Evan Peters, one of the few returning members of the original American Horror Story cast) is a young man, newly and secretly married to his African-American wife, when he experiences what appears to be an alien abduction, she is brutally murdered, and he is arrested on suspicion of being Bloody Face. “Did her dark meat slide off the bone easier than any of the other victims?” Sister Jude asks him nastily at his intake session.
And then there’s Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), a journalist relegated to the recipe column who comes to Briarcliff, ostensibly to write up Sister Jude’s famous bread bakery, but is using the assignment as cover to try to get a coop on the Bloody Face story. After an accident at the asylum, Sister Jude has her put in a cell, first telling Lana it’s so she can recover, but later blackmailing Sarah’s lover, Wendy (Clea Duvall), a young school teacher who fears having her sexual orientation exposed and being fired, into having Lana committed. “You have no legal standing,” Sister Jude tells Wendy. “I have a moral standing,” Wendy protests, seeing defeat already but determined to have her say. “Moral. That’s an interesting word,” Sister Jude tells her. The heartbreak of that decision, which Wendy immediately recognizes as an error, is the truest emotional beat in a new season with a fair number of them, mostly because it relies on real social conditions rather than lights in the sky or people made up as freaks to achieve a profound sense of fear and despair.
But while Sister Jude undeniably does terrible damage to the patients in her care, she’s a tragic figure, too, a woman who’s directed her considerable intellect and energy to serving the interests of powerful men. When Lana praises Sister Jude for her work on Lana’s initial visit to Briarcliff, Sister Jude immediately deflects credit up the chain of command. “The Monsignor, Timothy Howard [Joseph Fiennes], he’s the real visionary,” Sister Jude insists. “He believes the tonic for a diseased mind lies in the three ps: productivity, prayer, and purification. The bakery’s just the tip fo the iceberg. Oh, we have such dreams to this place.” Her devotion to Howard is so intense it’s sexual: Sister Jude has repeated visions of herself in a red negligee and her habit. But that intensity doesn’t mean her choice of this life is unconflicted. “It drives you crazy, doesn’t it?” a patient snarls at her at one point. “To be the smartest person in the room with no real power because of that nasty clam between your legs.” Sister Jude may insist that “Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin,” but repression breeds the possibility of crippling anger and transgression, too.
I don’t much care about the rest of the show, which includes Adam Levine as a young married getting tartared, heavily made-up freaks who “drowned her sister’s baby and cut his ears off,” and lots of images of a man wearing flayed skin. Thus far, the most grotesque images on the show haven’t been connected to the emotional and social horrors that Briarcliff is capable of inflicting on its victims. Perhaps they’ll meet up at some point, reinforcing the horror of both. But if “”The devil doesn’t reside in hell,” as Dr. Arden says, he doesn’t only occupy images of violence and grotesques, either.