[5 October 2011]
After her late term miscarriage, Vivian Harmon (Connie Britton) sees her gynecologist for yet another check-up. During the exam, he assures her that she needs to take care of herself if she wants to conceive again. “Your body is like a house,” he explains, “If the foundation is decaying, then you’re wasting your time.” “I’m not a house,” she says firmly, snapping her legs shut at the knees. But after enduring the birth of her stillborn son, it’s safe to say that some part of her is definitely haunted.
American Horror Story extends that metaphor to Vivian’s upper middle-class family. They hope to recover from a series of domestic tragedies by moving from Boston into a 1920s Victorian in L.A. We can see right away that the house is teeming with ghosts, hallucinations, and tragedies of its own. The series opens, on 5 October, with a bit of the new home’s backstory. In the late ‘70s, a pair of redheaded twin boys storm onto the grounds, right past the little neighbor girl with Down Syndrome, Adelaide. She warns them, “You’re going to die in there.” Not long after, the twins are torn to death by a bald demon living in the basement.
Years later, Adelaide, now a grown woman (Jamie Brewer), is still giving people the same warning about the house: “You’re going to die in there.” Her mother Constance (Jessica Lange), a Southern belle turned failed actress, explains to Vivian, “She has a bug up her ass about this house. Always has.” But the glint in Adelaide’s eye betrays something sinister. She’s not warning folks; she’s giddy about their impending doom.
And she’s not the only one. Shortly after the Harmons move in to their new home, Moira (Frances Conroy) appears on the property, claiming to be the maid who “comes with the house.” She’s a bedraggled old thing, with one wonky eye and box-dyed red hair, and possessed of a Mrs. Danvers-esque severity. When Vivian asks if Moira ever gets tired of cleaning up other people’s messes, she replies, “We’re women. That’s what we do.”
So what do men do? Vivian’s husband Ben (Dylan McDermott) is a fancy-pants psychiatrist who, in a grief spiral after the loss of their child, had an affair with his 21-year-old student. While Vivian and Ben try to repair their marriage in their new place on the west coast, they are also under the influence of the house’s lingering paranormal issue. These include leftover spirits, an insane father (Dennis O’Hare) who burned his wife and children alive, a bondage-suited sexual entity, and also Moira herself, who inexplicably appears to Ben not as the bedraggled old thing, but as a bedroom-eyed sex kitten (Alexandra Breckenridge), complete with a French maid’s uniform. You see, to Ben, that’s what women do.
Vivian doesn’t do that. She doesn’t wear garter belts or let Ben’s charming advances cloud her memory of his betrayal. The two haven’t been intimate in a year and the sexual frustration is making them both edgy and unhappy. Marital problems aside, one gets the sense that the organic-food-eating Vivian just doesn’t belong in a haunted house at all. When she hears a strange noise in her house, she calls 911 before she grabs a kitchen knife and goes upstairs to investigate.
The fact that she does go upstairs is both formulaic and nerve-racking. And such contradictions, whether embodied by Vivian or found in her new home, exemplify what works and what doesn’t about American Horror Story. So much of the outright horror is recycled from films—The Shining, Don’t Look Now, Poltergeist—but the plotting and pacing feel vaguely original, sometimes complicated and sometimes satirical, like American Beauty. Take the Harmons’ only daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga). She’s angsty and snarky and struggles to fit in at her new school, where she catches the attention of the head mean girl, who will, of course, end up in Violet’s basement to get scared straight. But Violet’s also vulnerable and complex in a way that teenagers are so rarely presented on TV. While she refuses to back down from a bully, she also self-mutilates in the bathroom mirror with her father’s razors because she does have real pain inside of her.
Late in the series premiere, Ben, still pleading with Vivian for forgiveness and a fresh start (and sex), submits that when they lost their son and he cheated, “Something horrible happened to us and we handled it even more horribly.” This seems like American Horror Story’s core question: when horrible things happen to people, what do they become? If they become unfaithful, jaded, and detached from the ones they love, that appears to be the real horror.