Unblinking – American Horror Story

The fourth episode of American Horror Story was on last night.

I’ve enjoyed each episode so far, but thought it was beginning a trajectory that’s common to horror.  This course (one that you can see in any number of film series) begins focused on a pure intent to scare and moves, sometimes quickly, sometimes over years, to a lighter tone.  Usually this is done with the addition of buffoonish characters, one-liners, or other types of comic relief.

This is not unwelcome; not in my opinion, anyway.  I can only take unrelenting oppression for so long.  Even over just the course of a ninety-minute movie that would be watched for no other purpose (think The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), I find myself wanting for some emotion other than terror.

I was a little surprised, though.  The first episode of AHS was consistently scary, delivering a steady stream of disturbing images and disturbed people, beginning with its opening credit sequence.  I don’t remember laughing much.

The second episode may have been the start of the turn: in less than one hour they placed us squarely in the corner of the monsters.  Who didn’t cheer a little on the inside when the Harmons’ intruders met their demise?  (The almost comically inept intruders, as I remember.)  This was homeowners and haunts working together at their best.  We knew, of course, that this collaboration would end, but for the moment we didn’t have a thing to be afraid of.

I do see the draw of this.  Like I said, nobody wants to be freaked out all the time.  The vast majority of us watch television to be entertained.  And AHS is very entertaining and, don’t get me wrong, offers no shortage of scares.

Still, a few minutes into last night’s episode, I turned to my wife and asked her if she could see the show sliding into camp territory (a wild extrapolation at this point, even I admit).

She, under a blanket and peeking through her fingers, answered with a resounding “No.”

So we watched.  The episode was spooky and good.  It missed some opportunities (other than a lingering camera shot, they certainly did not play up the creepiness potential of Addie’s “beautiful girl” Halloween mask), but they’re doing the hard work; I’m not.  At this point, I’m happy to sit on my couch and take what they give.

And based on the trend I’d been seeing, by the last quarter (starting when Addie got hit by a passing car), I began waiting for the final wink from the series to us, something to lighten the mood.  Instead, though, it piled one dark scene on top of the next: a nurse fainting of fright – at what? we can only imagine; a hysterical Constance with her possibly dead daughter; a burned man – a murderer – fierce and distorted seen through the perspective of a teenage girl.  It was he – eccentric, though grotesque – who had previously added some moments of black humor; and it was him whom, at episode’s end, I found most frightening.

So, I stand corrected in my early accusations of the series turning away, ever so slightly, from the horror of its title.  In the end, American Horror Story did not blink.

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