Watching acts of extreme violence take place in a home that you can’t leave is a very different experience in a post-COVID world.
Not that American Horror Story: Murder House wasn’t a sometimes tough watch when it premiered in 2011. But in returning to that location for the first two episodes in new anthology series American Horror Stories, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk may have overestimated our nostalgia for that season and that concept.
The usual Murphy flourishes are in full force here, with Rubber Man making an unwelcome return and Matt Bomer and Gavin Creel proving that gay dads can be just as strict and dull as straight parents. Toss in some secret blowjobs, a teenage lesbian’s extremely dark porn-viewing habits, and an irrational insistence on happy endings for couples and yeah—that’s the dish Murphy has been serving for the last 20 years.
Teens Ruby (Kaia Gerber) and Scarlett (Sierra McCormick)—one dead, one alive—find each other in the house and bond over murdering people. Somehow, this love is touted as something truly special and transcendent. In voiceover that closes out the second episode, Ruby rhapsodizes over how being able to spend Halloween together every year makes up for the other 364 days, when Scarlett is out in the world murdering people and Ruby eats breakfast with other dead teens and Scarlett’s two dads, whom she killed. “They probably would have gotten divorced anyway,” Scarlett shrugs when Ruby asks if she’s upset. “Now I don’t have to go to two houses for holidays.”
Horror fans have not love of the genre after seeing the world shutdown due to a relentless pathogen. But I’d like to believe we’re more thoughtful in what we consume. There’s something unsettling about American Horror Stories, as it blushes for star-crossed psychopath lovers while making therapy jokes and slitting throats around them.
The world just spent a year watching people die meaningless and preventable deaths, unprotected by age, health, or wealth. That didn’t stop me from recently rewatching all of the Friday the 13th movies, an exercise in gratuitous killing. But while those movies are tidy B0level thrillers about being trapped and fighting for your life, American Horror Stories‘ flippant approach to death feels off. These two episodes pay lip service to a lot of Murphy and Falchuk’s tropes (outsiders, teen drama, LGBTQ+ representation, kink celebration), but the core conceit is as hollow as it ultimately proved to be by the end of every season. And now, a new takeaway emerges that teen lesbians with an interest in BDSM may be on a slippery slope to more extreme porn and ultimately a killing spree.
“People die,” the series keeps telling us. “Let’s luxuriate in that knowledge while distracting ourselves with camp, over-the-top performances, and hot men.”
We just received a year of irrefutable proof that people die, and we distracted ourselves with TV and bread and, tellingly, sincere, open-hearted Ted Lasso.
Reveling in cynicism and brutal stabbings felt frivolous and naughty in Obama-era America, when American Horror Story first premiered. But in 2021, dying and being trapped in in one’s own home hits a lot differently.