‘American Horror Story and Philosophy: Life Is but a Nightmare’

Blood, guts, and identity theories about the popular FX horror anthology series.

American Horror Story and Philosophy: Life Is but a Nightmare
Richard Greene, Rachel Robison-Greene (eds.)
Open Court
Dec 2017

Sometimes the ambition of an anthology far outreaches the scope and necessities of its subject matter. Writers tend to circle around the same storylines, the same themes, tackling philosophical concepts on to them regardless of whether or not they will fit. The “Open Court Popular Culture and Philosophy” series has produced over 100 titles since its inception in 2000. They’re effective and user-friendly, not meant to confound or overwhelm. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always result in a compelling and varied collection of essays. The bottom line is that the choice of substantial subject matter is essential for the success and long shelf-life of any pop culture philosophy series. The 2011 Ryan Murphy/Brad Falchuk anthology series American Horror Story might have proven itself a compelling and daring television series, but that doesn’t always make for a great textbook.

Horror has always been a rich topic for philosophical discussion, and this Murphy/Falchuk production usually delivers. Each season is a self-contained story, and American Horror Story and Philosophy: Life Is but a Nightmare understands the content of its subject matter. For those unfamiliar, each season is a self-contained story. The first was subtitled Murder House, followed by Asylum, Coven, Freak House, Hotel, and Roanoke. Each of the first six seasons covered in American Horror Story and Philosophy (the series has since released a seventh season and is in pre-production for an eighth) lasts between 10-12 episodes and takes full advantage of the given location’s horror tropes. There are evil twins, ghouls in the attic, witches in mansions, hillbillies in the woods, and circus freak outcasts. The claims made in the introduction might be valid, but they would have been better served in a larger context:

“Behind all the gore and evil, American Horror Story addresses… social commentary on how we treat marginalized groups, and race relations, and civil rights. Strip away the horror and [it] is about life in America.”

Everything is covered here. In “What’s So Scary about Demonic Possession?” Rachel Robison-Greene reflects on the essence of soul and identity: “Descartes believed that he was, essentially, a thinking thing — a mind… Philosophers have raised objections to the soul view of personal identity.” Certainly the essence of demonic possession is frightening because we most fear losing the ability to identify ourselves, to have accountability for ourselves. In “A Death Worth Living”, Elizabeth Rard considers “the two disturbing possibilities” that account for our fear of death. First, we have to admit there might not be anything out there. Then, we have to consider that the “other” out there is a new and horrifying existence from which there will be no escape.

American Horror Story works within the context of great horror traditions. “If you die in a haunted building in the American Horror Story Universe you basically become immortal, and immortality has the rather disturbing potential to be incredibly boring.” Rard notes an admittedly effective scene in the Hotel season where Liz, the eternal vampire living out a lonely life at the Hotel Cortez, opts for death so she can exist as a ghost forever with her ghost family friends. Rard has a strong way of writing about this season and applying valid philosophical concepts to it.

In “My Sister, My Self?” writer Richard Greene seems more concerned in creating a creative nonfiction essay in which he places himself within the Freak House world. He knows all the characters, but the conceit gets tiresome as he gives Bette (one of the heads that make up the conjoined twin) and Desiree Dupree (the three-breasted lady) long philosophical monologues. This type of fan fiction scenario seems better suited for an Angel Fire website page circa 1998. The same can be said about Christopher Ketcham’s “999 Fingers” which, in spite of its cogent discussions of Buddha and impermanence, seems too entertained by its own literary style. In “How to Live through a Horror Story and Still Find Yourself”, Jacob Browne and Christophe Porot write about the “Self-Interpreting Animal”, that type of being able to be accountable for their own actions:

“You, too, are a Self-Interpreting Animal… structured across time to have meaning…N arratives provide that structure by tying together all these things. They make events meaningful.”

Browne and Porot seem to truly understand the essence of American Horror Story. “In every season except for Freak Show, we see the history of a place bursting into the present… Once a place has been tainted, its evil emanates into everything that comes near.” They understand that as each season comes to an end, there is still some element of family or community. Things might have dissolved in an endless flow of blood and guts, but the prospect of community remains. In “Other People’s Body Parts”, Charlene Elsby and Rob Luzecky effectively draw connections between the tangible power of an appendage (one’s own or something taken from another) and identity. It’s the body and the soul and everything in between. Do we pass from one form to another as we leave our lives? “There’s a fan theory… that the cast members from one season to the next are reincarnated as new characters fitted to their particular foibles.”

In “Horror Can Be Great Drama”, S. Evan Kreider makes a good argument that the series is “…dramatic art at a high level, and furthermore dramatic art with important ethical lessons.” The latter might be valid, even though he doesn’t attack the seasons as a television critic. Had he done that he most likely would have come away with impression (as many have) that the show runners lose their focus halfway through and more often than not conclude in a flood of garish excess. Still, the essay nicely elaborates on Aristotle’s elements for tragedy (plot, character, thought, style, lyrics [music], spectacle [visual effects.] ) Kreider manages to effectively connect Aristotle’s theories and concepts with the total mood of American Horror Story and proves among the best suited of the writers in this volume.

“The show lacks ‘style’ as Aristotle defines it, since the characters do not speak with poetic rhyme and rhythm… it does have style in the sense that sentences spoken have a particular rhythmic quality which influences how we understand them.”

Rachel Robison-Greene returns with an examination of Jessica Lange and her characters through the first three seasons of American Horror Story. It’s an effective and interesting essay, but it doesn’t really serve the purpose of a philosophical discussion regarding the personality profiles of those dynamic characters. Matthew William Brake’s “Night of the Living Disabled”, however, is better suited for this volume in that it picks up on the essence of American Horror Story. From discussions of Eugenics and the medical model and social model of disability discussions in life, Brake does a strong job connecting those elements as they’ve been displayed in this series. A stand-alone text on the making of American Horror Story: Freak Show might be even more compelling in that the creators faced accusations of exploitation through the casting of real-like “freaks”. Writer Rod Carveth covers that in “Too Freakin’ Bad”:

“In employing “freaks” as freaks, Ryan Murphy likely thought that he was doing a socially responsible act. But’ like many aspects of actual freak shows, that interpretation is not so clear-cut.”

Cherise Huntingford does a strong job covering the implications of witches in fictional narratives and history in “Burn the Witch!” Throw Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Aristotle, and natural law into the mix but focus on how this was probably the strongest proof that the mission for this statement is to “dismantle the gender power structure”. In “The Absurdity at the Heart of Horror”, Gerald Browning understands that sometimes the only way to comprehend is to embrace the unknowable. We cannot understand everything:

“This lack of understanding contributes to a sense of insignificance and existential despair. Sometimes the only response to that despair is to embrace our own insignificance.”

Albert Camus knew this when he wrote of Sisyphus, and the nihilism of horror has also been reflected in the work of the Marquis De Sade. Look deep enough into the heart of darkness, mix the chaos theory of absurd with the hopelessness of nihilism, and we can sometimes lose ourselves in the endless dark night of the soul.

The effectiveness of these essays more often than not depends on both the strength of the season chosen and the writer’s willingness to be more academic than stylistic. The Roanoke season, which tried to be both a social commentary on reality TV and a conventional horror story, got lost perhaps halfway through its run. Coven, Hotel, and Freak Show were stronger and as a result the writers who chose those seasons were able to more effectively connect them with philosophical concepts.

As an entire volume, American Horror Story and Philosophy proves comparable to its subject matter. It’s compelling, at times profound and intelligent, but it gets weighed down by segments that are too stylistic, too excited by their ability to jump through hoops and impress the reader. Like the show, which is easily viewed in 10-12 chapters, this book is comprehensive, exhausting, and frustrating. Sometimes it’s better to close a charming, intelligent, stylistic text before it wears out its welcome.

RATING 6 / 10