Wednesday 14 June 2017

A review of American Horror Story (mostly)

If you keep staring at a really difficult problem you're never going to fix it. You need to walk away for a moment and shift your perspective because right now, you’re just too close to see a solution. As any of us can attest to, we’ve all experienced it at some point or another – there can be an eternity in a moment. You have to take those moments, you have to stop being you for a heartbeat and come back with fresh eyes. The pauses are important.

With that in mind, I’m going to change things up and launch into a review blog, of sorts, about a show I have watched recently that I feel is worth a review. I dallied a while over whether or not to recommend it, and my hesitation over this will become clear as I explain myself. But the main reason I decided to sit and write finally this was that the show made me think, and ultimately I believe that any story that makes you think is worth experiencing. This show has moved forward my ideas regarding horror, on why I'm drawn to it as a genre, and why I think it's an important part of our spectrum of experience.

The show I’m going to talk about is American Horror Story, hereafter referred to as AHS. Now, I predict that a few of you might react with ‘oh, but I don’t like horror’, and, I hear that, but also, I sincerely feel that you might be missing out by cutting off this genre entirely. It’s also in my vested interest to encourage you to like horror, if only in the hopes that you’ll then read my first book (I have no delusions of grandeur, it’s not like it’s going to be published, but it is going to be finished) So, please bear with me on the recommendation, and I’ll come back to why it matters later.

Oh, important disclaimer – all opinions expressed here are just that, opinions. Don’t take me too seriously, I never do. There might be some incidental spoilers but I’ll do my best to avoid them and I can assure you that none will be such that it would make viewing the show any less worthwhile.

I’ll begin at the beginning then. I tried to watch the first season of AHS many years ago and it just didn’t grab me. I felt it had its feet way too firmly placed in the queasy porn kind of horror, and almost immediately things get spookily sexual or sexually spooky, I’m not sure which. Within the first couples of episodes or so you are made privy to a naked man cry wanking onto a table while gazing despondently out of a window at a tramp in the woods. I shit you not, that’s a thing that actually happens. Then this troubled character’s wife, after months of not wanting to go near him sexually, just on a seeming whim acquiesces to sex with a figure in a full gimp outfit that she just assumes is her husband. I mean, do you think in that scenario you might want to check the validity of that assumption? Maybe ask yourself a basic question like, does your husband even own a gimp suit to your knowledge? Does he often approach you in eerie silence and not respond to anything you say? Are you not getting even the slightest vibe that something might be amiss? No? In which case by all means, fuck first and ask questions later.

As you’ll have insightfully observed from the above, I was not impressed and quickly dropped it. But recently I’ve seen repeated reference to ongoing seasons of AHS from my various streams of influence, including intriguing clips of demonic clowns and sinister asylums. And Kathy Bates, a lot of Kathy Bates. This caught my attention because I think Bates is a super talented actress. She is the ultimate example of oh-so-good but oh-so-overlooked resulting in her starring in next to nothing. I have no idea why, other than the fact that she looks like a normal human rather than a stunning Hollywood-ite, and she had the audacity to not even want to change her appearance to conform, crazy, right? You probably know her best, or only know her, from the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery, where she manages to be sympathetic, absorbing and genuinely terrifying. And if you don’t take my word for it, why not take the Oscar she got for it into consideration. Bates imbibes her characters completely, and her ability to make an antagonist so compelling to me demonstrates an understanding of humanity on a fundamental level that only the best ever manage to portray. Creepy imagery aside, the presence of Bates was enough to make me consider returning to AHS.

AHS is an anthology show that tells a different story each season, set in a different time and place, often with the same actors returning to take on new roles each time. Obviously, a vague curiousity wasn’t enough to make me return to S1 (Murder House), so I leapt straight to S2 to neatly bypass all of the cry-wanking hoo-ha. S2 (Asylum) is set in a mental health institution in 1964 Massachusetts, run by the Catholic Church. Because this is a horror story, you know that it’s going to be a disturbing and unsettling depiction of how people with mental and physical disabilities were treated at that time. This was always going to be strong jumping off point for a horror story because it incorporates so much that we have fundamental issues with confronting: our fear of difference, abuses of power, religious dogma, blame and guilt, control and, ultimately, loss of control.

S2 does start in the same vein of overtly sexual weirdness… for the first few minutes. But very quickly thereafter the actual story gets going, mostly leaving this trope behind. I have to say that throughout this season I swung wildly between finding it all a bit dumb and a tad exploitative to the other extreme of being really impressed by some solid performances from decent actors, along with effective and moving imagery and story arcs. The main thing that kept me watching was my interest in what felt like an actual desire on the part of the creators to explore that which is uncomfortable about human nature, the evils we commit upon ourselves and each other. Although it’s clumsy at points and you can hear the gears grinding between tonal shifts, it manages to cover most bases of what people would find interesting or scary within the genre, including, but not limited to, the concept of evil in a religious context and devil possession, body horror and weird science, mental illness and obsession, ghosts, serial killers and even aliens, it’s got it all. The strongest turns by far in S2 are from Jessica Lange and Zachary Quinto, and what AHS does is to set up a key core of actors that keep coming back season after season. They play different parts each time but, especially if their characters tend to be heroic, or particularly evil, this use of familiarity in emotions and perspectives I found helps to anchor you as a viewer, and they can leverage off that feeling of consistency, almost safety, to explore increasingly dark subject material.

This series was enough to send me into S3 (Coven), and S3 had enough about it to keep me engaged but wasn’t nearly as good as its predecessor. This season focused on witchcraft in the modern day (well, 2013, as was) combining America’s troubled history with events such as the Salem Witch Trails and putting a modern Charmed meets The Craft sort of spin on it. They also set in it New Orleans and use the counterpoint of voodoo culture which really gives it that sultry, steamy Louisiana vibe. Using this backdrop they delve into issues of gender, race, sexuality, mortality, morality and control. I know it sounds like a lot all at once, and it’s always good to remember that this is Americans we’re talking about here and they do like to go heavy with the metaphor, driven, I assume, by the paralyzing fear that if they don’t their audience might not get it. I have to say that despite all of that, this sort of horror is not quite in my wheelhouse but I still appreciated a lot of the ideas behind it. Plus it has one episode that’s completely focused on a terrifically fun zombie siege, with more active corpses than you will often see in an entire season of The Walking Dead. Also, a KICK ASS turn from the first appearance of Kathy Bates, so I was already locked in whatever happened!

S4 (Freak Show) was just the best. There’s no other way to put it, it was simply the best. S4 is set in 1952 in Florida and follows a troop of travelling freak show performers. This story hits every note brilliantly, from the soundtrack to the direction to the script to the performances, each of which I could sing endless high praise about, with only a small number of exceptions. Amongst many other things, it has the scariest iteration of an evil clown I’ve ever seen, it’s like they mined into our collective nightmares and that was what erupted forth. And yes, I am taking into account Tim Curry’s Pennywise, and even though that depiction is the bench mark and Curry exists in his own personal plane of awesome, even then, this clown stands out. Ultimately, I think S4 just has the strongest story, most consistent and relatable characters, and the most powerful themes to draw upon, namely, the issue of identity and self-worth.

S4 also contains my favourite sequence from across all of the seasons. By ‘favourite’ I mean that I found it to be stand-out powerful, rather than enjoyable. Now, despite each season being set in various different time settings and locations, these stories all cross over at some point, because if you’re playing with that kind of universe, who wouldn’t do that? The best example of this concerns a character called Pepper (known as the “Pinhead” due to a specific birth defect) who is in both S2 and S4, but how she ends up in the asylum in S2 is not explored until toward the end of S4. After she leaves the troop, we follow her journey on until you discover how she came to be in the mental institution in S2. It’s a heart breaking story that’s difficult to watch and this is saying something given the overall darkness of the series. At the end of it, in the asylum, she finds compassion in the nun who later becomes possessed and a very nasty character indeed. The reason this is such a powerful little arc is the emotional resonance that it manages to add to a story that you’ve already seen. We are shown how loving and caring this character was before her downfall, and this makes the tragedy of what you have already witnessed that much more painful. Tapping into a story you’ve already told to deliver an even greater emotional pay-off that would not exist without the meta-crossover of the two arcs? Now THAT’S storytelling, bitches.

S5 (Hotel) is nominally set in the “modern day” (2015) in a hotel in LA called The Cortez, although there is a lot of time hopping back and forth between different eras of the hotel. As you would expect, there is muchos referencing to The Shining, but the overall horror vibe here is 80’s vampire chic, think The Lost Boys meets Vamp meets Near Dark meets Fright Night and you’ve got the gist. Lady Gaga is also there, clearly demonstrating exactly how far the nudity clause in her contract will stretch (to the nipples but not beyond, just FYI) But it isn’t really fair to reduce her turn to that, even though she is playing kind of an aloof caricature of herself, it was still a good bit of casting and she does it well. The big themes in this season are addiction and self-acceptance, or lack thereof. There is also another serial killer thread running through, which is a trope that works well in S2 and S4 (I failed to mention this earlier but these are possibly in part reasons why these series’ are more engaging) This serial killer motif is routed in the Seven or Zodiac vibe which gives it a very Noir Thriller edge. S5 is good but not as good as S2 or 4, it still has its moments though and the constant presence of Bates from S3 onwards does a lot to keep me watching. I think a lot of my issues with this season centre around a squeamishness over vast amounts of blood and blood drinking, which is totally a personal aversion and nothing to do with the script or plot. Although I think it’s a fairly normal aversion to have, to be fair!

S6 (Roanoke) is set in Northern California in 2016 and it is very much a Blair Witch-y, reality TV-y, Paranormal Activity take on the genre, using the oft-cringe worthy device of the mockumentary meets hand-held camera style. This is not my favourite sub-genre of horror, it too often gets ridiculous in how committed a character is to filming insane shit while not responding like a human might in that situation. Yes, Diary of the Dead, I am totally thinking of you when I say that. But it does incorporate a lot of original American settler history and old God and druidic symbology, which are really interesting themes to me. It’s definitely the weakest of all the seasons though (S1 notwithstanding) but by this point I’m hooked because of all that’s come before. Like any relationship, once you’re invested, it takes a lot to make you give up on it.  

There you go, a review of 6 seasons in less than 2 pages, and that’s not bad going even if I do say so myself. But I appreciate that it was also a LOT, so take a breath, make a cuppa or the likes, cos I ain’t done with you yet, baby.

Before I began, I asked you to hold your horses if you’re inclined to reject my recommendation based on not liking horror. The first question I’d ask in response to that is - do you really not like horror? Or is it just that it makes you feel really uncomfortable? Because if it’s the being made to feel uncomfortable thing, my argument would be that it’s important to feel like that sometimes, dudes. This uncomfortable space is what I’m going to talk about now. However, if you’re like, Chrissy, mate, it’s just not my bag and you’re not going to change my mind, then all power to ya, and thanks for reading anyway.

I used to be a massive scardy cat when it came to horror. But the concept of things that go bump in the night was never far from my ever turning imagination for the very same reason I avoided it, it fascinated me and repulsed me all at once. I could write another essay on the origins of my relationship with horror, but don’t worry, I’ll just give you a snapshot…

I remember sitting at the top of my great aunt and uncle’s staircase in Skipton, sneaking a peak of what the adults were watching on TV when I should have been in bed, it was Stephen King’s IT and I can still see it if I close my eyes now… I remember every time I watched Raiders of the Lost Arc I closed my eyes at the end, just like Indy said to, and then one day I opened then and it was all face melting terror… I remember listening the The War of the Worlds during a primary school assembly, I most have only been about 6 or 7 (village schools were weird in the late ‘80’s, early 90’s) and I remember looking up at the high windows and wondering if the sounds of the aliens approaching and the trees burning was a reality just behind the wall... So many, many intersections with ideas that made my hairs stand on end, but what I always remember is that the darkness just felt too real to engage with head on, it was powerful and I was fearful. So I just tried to pretend it wasn’t a part of the world.

Even though I allowed Buffy into my life at 14 and I began to explore horror through the safety of the Scooby gang, my first experiences of full tilt horror came in my late teens, from the likes of Iain Banks and Stephen King. Banks’s novel Complicity is not a horror in the truest sense but it is certainly horrific and challenging. I recall balancing my forays into these mind fucks by reading Harry Potter or Calvin and Hobbes, using them as hopeful palate cleansers to chase away the lingering, troubling thoughts I was left with. The first Stephen King book I ever read was Gerald’s Game. If you’ve read it, you know what a hard and upsetting story it is and I remember crying most of the way through the first time I read it. King was the first writer to show me that true horror is never outside of the door, but within our own heads. And he was soon to be followed by so many other great writers who shook the foundations of what I previously felt to be safe and good and true. But just like a good teacher, who can show you the way, they can’t tell you how to learn it, that has to come from you. Sometimes stories sit with you, just like the words of advice you’ve been given, until you are ready to really understand what you have been told and connect with it through your own experience.  

Without going into too much detail, the main journey in Gerald’s Game is the one that the protagonist takes within her own head. Before finding her way out of danger, she needs to understand the reason why she’s there in the first place. You could argue that she is in that situation against her will, and undoubtedly she believes so at first. But as the story progresses she understands that a million choices she made have led to that point, she just didn’t understand that she had the control, and therefore allowed every choice to be someone else’s. The message here, I believe, is that it is only through accessing the route of your pain, not just numbing it or rationalising it away, do you learn the truth you never allowed yourself to feel. Often it takes a very extreme situation, along with the threat of inaction leading to something worse, to stop you from continuing to avoid your own thoughts.

The rhetoric of this thought process could be explained thusly - you know that thing that happened to you?

That was absolutely fucking shit.

It really was. You’re allowed to feel that. And I mean feel it. Cry, scream, and work out every bit of the source of that hurt, because it’s only by going through the pain that you can let it go. And you do have to let it go. But you usually find that letting go is a natural progression from acknowledging it. Then you can take a look around and see where you’ve taken yourself, how running from that pain created a whole lot of new pain – so within, so without. The dawning realisation that hits then is this - you have a choice. In Gerald’s Game the character chooses a way out. The choice was still a hard one to make, escape can sometimes be as painful as the original trauma, but it’s still a choice, and we always, always have choices.  

Horror as a genre is important because it’s a safe environment through which we can access our worst fears. The monsters we create in these stories are just manifestations of the real world challenges we face. The reason I like AHS as an anthology series is that, while it doesn’t always hit the mark, it’s full of ideas that use the genre to explore themes which bring us closer to the dark half of our humanity. It also tells these stories through striking and beautiful visuals and moments of emotion, because the poetry of storytelling lies in the beauty of how you are carried through it. Shutting a door on horror only gives it power. Seeing it and experiencing it for what it is, a part of life, is the only thing that depowers it. The cure to the things that lurk in the shadows is always the same though: understanding, empathy, forgiveness and love. Because do you know what most of your interactions with the rest of the world boil down to, especially when it comes to judgement and blame and bullying? That’s just, like, completely, their shit, man.

Other people can make you feel any emotion under the sun, they really can, we know this, but how you choose to respond to that emotion? That’s entirely on you. You can chose to be angry or sad, you can choose to forgive or hold a grudge, it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you understand that it’s your choice - nobody else is making you do anything. Yes, I am aware that terrible things can happen to you that are beyond your control, but, outside of that moment, an external force cannot control you – you are you. This works the other way around too. Obviously if you’ve deliberately been a dick to somebody, they will react accordingly, but half of what we carry around with us is completely misplaced guilt and responsibility. If you act with integrity and are accountable to your actions, don’t let anyone tell you that you should still feel bad. In fact, you can fuck that shit sideways, because it just isn’t yours.

I look at the above paragraph and can see that I’ve easily fallen into the pattern of throwing out advice that just won’t mean a thing to someone it doesn’t connect with. But that really doesn’t matter, people come to things in their own time. Often they’ll come to different conclusions, but sometimes they’ll come to the same ones, and you never know the weight of your words days, weeks, or even years down the line. It’s important to share how you feel and your experience of life, because, and I’ve found this, people will find the influences that help them when they need it. Those influences will be made up of everything they knew before, but didn’t fully connect with, and everything they seek out now. Share your story, always, because it’s one worth telling, and every bit of it is fascinating, trust me. It’s another life adding to the collective experience of the universe.

This brings me back around to my point – the experience of horror is an important one, because it makes you feel. It’s meant to trouble you and leave you feeling vulnerable and exposed because it’s only through experiencing those uncomfortable places that we are enabled to grow. So if you take anything away from this meander, take this one bit – engage with more horror. Don’t run from the dark corners, embrace them as a complex piece of your reality. This is why I recommend AHS as a good introduction because it’s bound to have a season that will fit within at least some of your particular interests, it’s just so varied and wide ranging. Although, no, I still haven’t worked up the interest to go back to S1. Maybe I will, one day, but every time I consider it I remember the depressive wanking and maybe that’s just a little too close to home or something? Who knows, either way, I’m still not keen.

Oh, and watch AHS for Kathy Bates, dudes, just goddamn Kathy Bates. I love that woman, I really do. Not in a Sam Rockwell way, but in the way I would love Sam Rockwell if I didn’t happen to fancy the pants off him as well.

One final thing, I…

Oh. Wait, what…? I’ve always been strong enough. That’s the point.

I think that’s enough for now. Go watch AHS for a bit. I’ll still be here when you get back. 

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