The over the top circus that is American Horror Story tickles me to no end. I was thrilled this week when season 2 premiered; shifting gears with a whole new premise and story arch. Although we have moved from a modern day residential Californian neighbourhood to an asylum for the criminally insane circa 1964 all the elements that made the first season so compelling are still intact. The thing I really like about A.H.S. is that it wears its influences on its sleeves. They have no problem with paying homage to or directly ripping off scenes from countless Horror films. In the season 2 premiere alone we see references to Fire in the Sky, Carrie, Silence of the Lambs and a not so subtle tip of the hat to A Clockwork Orange amongst others. It is obvious that the writers of the show are also huge fans of the genre.
When it comes to Horror I’m conflicted: I really love the themes and creativity that it reflects but I have no real interest in watching a whole movie nowadays. As a social barometer it is brilliant, the trends in Horror say so much about the times we live in. Right now we are fascinated with the imminent zombie apocalypse and the ghosts that we have lurking in our own homes. Horror’s job is to prey on our fears and what people fear most right now is the perceived instability of the economy and the breakdown of society that it may cause. The real estate crisis is the real evil presence that has crept into our houses. Foreclosure becomes the poltergeist and the safety we once felt about the place we reside is shaken. People don’t feel safe in their own homes anymore and movies like Paranormal Activity, Insidious and Sinister all play on this to some level.
Another aspect that a movie like Paranormal Activity addresses is our overwhelming fascination with documenting everything. Technology has come so far that everyone has the capability to film every waking and in the case of P.A. sleeping hour of the day. We have become addicted to the small screen and we may be dangerously close to losing the big picture. You don’t need to watch The Walking Dead to see zombies, just go to your local mall. Everywhere you look people are lumbering along, heads down, completely disengaged with their surroundings and enamored with their handheld devices. What happens when you put a bunch of zombies in a room together? Nothing; for a creature that is constantly surrounded by their peers they are horrible at socializing. What happens when you put a bunch of people around a table who all have cell phones? You do the math.
Horror is the perfect mirror that shows us our inner monsters and ridiculous attitudes. It allows us to safely exercise these demons with an adrenaline inducing jolt or spine chilling shiver. Where Horror lost me was the trend towards more jump scares and torture. I feel torture has very little social commentary or entertainment value. I’m not opposed to the odd bit of gore but in this everything’s been done/nothing’s shocking climate, I long for the days of the straight forward masked psychopath stalker of the seventies and eighties. Those movies were the perfect morality plays. They banked upon society’s irrational love/hate affair with youth. Teenagers were always up to no good. It seemed all they did was sneak off into the woods and get wasted and have sex. If this was the kind of conduct you would engage in, then you would obviously suffer some grizzly fate. Horror as moral compass, the contradiction is sublime.
These days television has picked up the Horror gauntlet in a new and refreshing way. Both American Horror Story and The Walking Dead are taking the genre into the realm of serial storytelling where characters and plots have time to grow and evolve over the course of a season. The story is the armature in which to build the scares around. After an engaging first season The Walking Dead nearly lost me during season 2. It devolved into one earnest conversation followed by an even more earnest conversation with every episode finishing with a shocking reveal. I hope season 3 has a little more to offer. American Horror Story: Asylum has definitely something to offer and that something is Jessica Lange. Her role may be new but her presence is always exhilarating. I would put her in the same league as Edie Falco; actors who can totally inhabit a character and then shed it to define a new persona. Jessica Lange’s Sister Jude exudes both menace and pathos in equal measure. She is doing wrong in the name of right, oh the horror, the horror.