[Spoilers for all seasons and episodes up to the October 26 installment.]
Most of us have that one genre whose pleasures elude us. We ignore it or avoid it; some of us even assemble our identities around hating it. For me, that genre is horror. And yet I can’t stop watching American Horror Story (FX), currently in the midst of its format-jumping sixth season (subtitled Roanoke). Part of my addiction is attributable to the series’s many and impressive assets. But for a horror-hater like myself, the show’s frequent terribleness contributes just as much to its compulsive watchability.
My main objection to horror — in particular horror movies — is that I don’t enjoy being scared, especially for extended periods of time. I steer clear of lumps in my throat, chills in my veins, and tingles down my back if I can help it — physiological symptoms of adrenaline that have nowhere to go and nothing to do but stress my body out. Judging by how often AHS pays homage to (some might say steals from) genre tropes and landmarks, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are obviously horror fans. But they’re subverters, too. AHS turned a genre traditionally known for its cruelty toward women and conservative sexual values into a showcase for actresses in an expansive age range, stories about unapologetically ambitious and powerful women, and a distinct camp sensibility. Where else on TV would you see, as on Asylum, a sixtysomething actress (Jessica Lange) play an alcoholic, homicidal nun with a weakness for fire-engine-red lingerie simultaneously battling a fame-hungry journalist (Sarah Paulson), a Nazi doctor (James Cromwell), a demon-possessed nun (Lily Rabe), a demented Santa Claus (Ian McShane), and — though she doesn’t know it — medically experimenting extraterrestrials?
But American Horror Story’s most appreciated largesse — at least to us scaredy cats — is that it’s rarely frightening. AHS frequently shocks us, upsets us, unsettles us, and grosses us out, but it seldom gets our heart racing for long. Rather, it decouples the scares from the surprises and the grotesqueries. If you can stomach — or better yet, delight in — the artful gore, AHS offers all of horror’s lurid spectacles and gleeful transgressions without the agitating palpitations.
Take this week’s episode, which involved multiple murders, a pair of axings, and forced cannibalism. American Horror Story’s ironic sense of humor has always been central to its appeal, and this year, the mid-season introduction of the show-within-the-show’s actors — played by AHS repertory players Paulson, Evan Peters, Angela Bassett, and Kathy Bates, as well as series newcomer Cuba Gooding Jr. — injected a comic element largely missing from the first five installments. Though not without sympathy, Bates’s deranged actress evoked little to no sadness when her head was cleaved in half. Nor were we sad to see Cheyenne Jackson’s oily reality-TV producer stabbed to death. Perhaps even more than in previous seasons, Roanoke has done little to plead empathy for its characters. The one truly shocking death so far was that of Matt (André Holland) by his jealous, traumatized wife, Shelby (Rabe) — an event that played as a shocking tragedy, but not a scare.
Fright in horror, I’d contend, involves rooting for characters while worrying about their survival and/or well-being. But AHS constantly disrupts such identifications with its dark-underbelly twists and chronic misanthropy (which prevails despite most seasons’ grimly happy endings). A repentant husband (Dylan McDermott) can’t help cheating again in Murder House, a “good” witch (Frances Conroy) poisons her colleagues in Coven, a devoted cop (Wes Bentley) joins the serial killer hall of fame in Hotel. Maternal figures turning on their children is the show’s most recurring theme. The first couple of these moral reversals are initially fun, but they ultimately lead to inconsistent characterizations, which get muddled even further by gratuitous guest appearances (Neil Patrick Harris! Michael Chiklis! Grace Gummer! Joseph Fiennes!) and messy piles of aimless plotlines. Whatever tension, through line, or emotional momentum there might have been always dissipates by the end of the season via flabby storytelling. By the time the finish line was in sight, I gave up caring who Coven’s Supreme was or what would become of Freak Show’s despicable Dandy (Finn Wittrock). With three episodes left this season, I’m already not sure that I care enough about any of the current characters to discover who makes it out of the Roanoke reality show. And I’m glad I care so little about the people, because it means I can still watch the show for the parts of the show that have never let me down: its scenery-gobbling performances, elegantly prurient art direction, and willingness to explore every last corner of pulpy outlandishness.