Monday, December 26, 2011

Nothing is scary when you understand it: American Horror Story Wraps It Up

I am a bit fascinated by the concept of Numbers Stations.  Not enough to buy a copy of The Conet Project, but I have lost full evenings online listening to clips.

If you're not familiar with Numbers Stations, you may remember the first season of ABC's Lost, where our heroes were picking up a seemingly random sequence of numbers coming over their radio.  It was spooky stuff, because you're hearing a human voice, and they seem to think they're making sense, but there's something else clearly going on, something organized, and not knowing what is happening puts you at a disadvantage.

These things are very real, and they make no sense.  Hearing someone repeating "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" over and over, or a series of chimes, or a series of numbers  appearing mysteriously over shortwave (where the broadcasts got their name) sets you back a pace.  Disembodied voices, garbled by the inconsistencies of the aether, making no sense...  its utterly discomfiting.

No, it does not steady the nerves to think: oh, its spies broadcasting via shortwave from behind enemy lines. But it is an explanation.  But what if its not spies...?  What if we don't know...?

We know that people will generally come up with some sort of animistic explanation for the world around them when they don't have facts.  Its the source for stories of goblins, faeries, leprechauns, and, of course, ghosts.

American Horror Story was a ghost story.  A 13-episode ghost story, which breaks from the usual mold of ghost-story movies, which give you 90-120 minutes to get a deep immersion, get spooked, and get out.  It doesn't give you an opportunity over several months to let you question too much about the situation, or, indeed, become familiar with the ghost or learn the "rules" of the ghosts or show.

What made my two favorite ghost-story movies, The Shining and The Haunting, work so well was the slow boil to meltdown.  We may have seen pieces of what was happening, and most certainly the creators of both films (Kubrick and Wise, respectively), knew not to just create a separate magical world with traffic laws and a tax code, if they wanted to keep their movies frightening.

You can ride American Horror Story as a ghost story right through the Halloween 2-parter, but after that, the show was trying to explain too much.  In fact, 13 episodes may have been too much.  I can't help but think that we never needed more than 8 episodes.

There are still plenty of avenues to explore in American Horror Story, but much like the undoing of Lost (a show that it seems we all agreed to quit talking about simultaneously), it seems that explaining things will only reduce the show in the end, make it a shadow of the early promise, where nothing is ever scary because we now understand what's happening, and when we understand, how scary can something really be?*  Even ghosts.  The show's ghosts, after all, seem to be on a continual character growth curve, which is sort of the opposite of what I'd always found frightening about the concept of ghosts, that they were caught in a loop of a moment of despair, an idea the show plays with, but seems to apply with terrible inconsistency.

Nonetheless, I think from a "fantasy TV show" aspect, American Horror Story still came out fairly well.  And I'll be very curious to see how they handle it if they're given another season.

*obviously there are exceptions to this rule, but when your show is based on the ethereal, I think that's a whole other set of challenges.  I think its more often in real life, when we uncover the truth about the past, that things become distressing, but that's different from "scary", as in "fight or flight"


RHPT said...

The League said...

Obviously I disagree with the writer of the article. What he sees as fascinating possibility, I see as turning ghosts into familiar TV characters of a weekly drama who happen to occasionally murder the living. Its not a great sell to me as "scary" or keeping with the premise of "frightening". Instead, it eventually turns the characters into basic cable comfort food, and there's already enough of that on TV.

At the end of the day, if these characters can grow and change, its not about tortured souls as the undead, its about folks living in a house who don't care for each other, and that basically sounds like the set-up for a sitcom.

Fortunately, the show wrapped in time before it had opportunity to go that far off the deep end. And I am glad season 2 is not going to try to repeat more of the same. I suspect you'd hit a very serious sophomore slump.