American Horror Story Is At Its Best When It Focuses On Scaring You

American Horror Story goes back to horror basics for '1984'

American Horror Story has been an ever-evolving thrill ride since Murder House debuted with the intent to terrorize. The first season utilized classic genre tropes like ghosts and witches to build suspense week after week, enticing viewers to cast their own theories and immerse themselves into the Harmon family drama. But as AHS added to its twisted mythology with seasons focused on catty covens (Season 3's Coven), the perils of reality television (Season 6's Roanoke), and political clownery (Season 7's Cult), it toned down the genuine scares in favor of killer camp and preachy themes.


A scene from American Horror Story: Cult

But with the current season, American Horror Story: 1984, the show made a swift return to its roots, presenting its purest take on horror since the very start. Truly, 1984’s pivot back to unfiltered terror has amplified its appeal in big ways. It’s a healthy dose of what longtime viewers who have stuck with every season, from Asylum to Apocalypse, loved in the first place. And it's the first season in recent memory that doesn't try and make flimsy connections to past seasons for the sake of building out the franchise's own mythology.

By paying homage to the simple horror of AHS’s earliest successes, the scariest show on TV has finally gotten its groove back. Here’s how this season has built itself back up to be even better than before.

  • It invested us in the cast from the start

    From the very beginning of 1984, it was hard not to get invested in this rag-tag group of young camp counselors. There was Brooke (Emma Roberts), reserved in her overalls and scandalized by rocker chic Montana’s (Billie Lourd) unexpected pass. Per his many reminiscences, Xavier (Cody Fern) is a former actor, while Chet (Gus Kenworthy) is a former user, we learn as he laments his steroid use. Finally, there’s Ray (DeRon Howard), who attended medical school once upon a time, but dropped out somewhere along the way.

    And there we have it: an eclectic group of friends who decided to spend their summer working at the eerie Camp Redwood. We had their number as soon as they showed their faces. Better yet: the familiar narrative offered just enough insight into their checkered pasts and personalities to make us care, but still keep us curious.

    Then we meet the overtly devout owner of Camp Redwood, Margaret (Leslie Grossman), and the mystery begins to unfold. She presents herself as a survivor of the massacre that occurred at her beloved camp 14 years ago — a Friday the 13th-like slaying previewed within the first 15 minutes of the season premiere. She wants to make something positive out of the location, but her harsh personality makes her feel more like a murder suspect than an ally. Of course, that's all part of the fun of a slasher; you never know who you can trust.

    Because we’ve all seen slasher flicks like Friday the 13th, we know what could happen to our crew at any moment, and we’re given plenty of reasons to want to keep them from harm. Even though we know the character count is bound to dwindle down to the quintessential “final girl,”  we can’t help but scream “RUN!” every time one of them is in danger.

  • It doesn’t deviate from the main plot

    American Horror Story’s first season was awash with some of the most clever horror writing on television, serving seriously twisted visuals with not one superfluous scene. After toying with some extraneous twists and shock-value turns in a few seasons — who could forget Asylum’s left-field alien invasion, or the mid-season “documentary” reveal of Roanoke1984 returns the series to its laser-focused tradition.

    With only nine episodes this season, there’s no time to waste on frivolity. At the midpoint, we’ve already: gotten insight into Camp Redwood’s alleged O.G. killer, Mr. Jingles; learned that everyone who seemed good might also be bad; gotten a clarifying time jump to 1989 showing the downfall of Richard Ramirez and the near-execution of Brooke Thompson after being framed for committing the Camp Redwood murders. That’s a lot of story in less than five hours of television. Every scene, every sentence, and every glance has been satisfyingly loaded.

    Of course, it’s easy to stay on track in 1984, given its setting. There are no cell phones or social media apps to steal our characters’ attention. There are hardly even landlines — save the lone payphone Mr. Jingles uses to haunt Brooke with his ominous jingling keys. Modern distractions eliminated, the season leans into its chosen genre, earnestly offering characters who know more than they let on, a truly abhorrent killer (or so you think), and the gory kills you expect from a slasher.

  • The twists make sense

    The twists in 1984 have been plentiful, and each one has spiraled off beautifully into the next. So far, there haven’t been any hard-stop, reset moments like Freak Show’s ‘surprise, the freaks run the freak show’ reveal — just a straightforward slasher. When things do go off the rails, it’s in service of the story.

    For instance, take Mr. Jingles. We learned early on that he is (possibly) Camp Redwood’s murderous whatever — or is he? Come to find out, he has no memories of the massacre, and he hasn’t been blocking them out. It turns out they may never have actually happened in the first place. Meanwhile, Margaret’s perfect facade begins to crumble. When established serial killer Richard Ramirez comes knocking at her door, she fawns over him as if he were an old friend, despite knowing all about his murderous urges. Is this camp owner even who she claims to be?

    These twists are fun callbacks to the way classic slasher flicks utilized misdirection to shock and thrill audiences. For instance, throughout the first Friday the 13th film, you're lead to believe the killer is the boy who drowned at Crystal Lake years prior to the movie. It turns out his mother, Mrs. Voorhees, was the culprit all along. In fact, 1984 takes this exact plot thread and uses it in a later episode, turning it on its head and repurposing it for its own characters.

  • The fun feels earned

    Previous seasons of American Horror Story took themselves a bit too seriously. Cult’s thinly veiled diatribe after the 2016 presidential election loomed over viewers like the actual election. And others felt campy for camp's sake, like Season 5's blood-soaked, Gaga-starring Hotel. Now, camp has always been essential to AHS's foundation; most diehard fans would agree that the show has been more memorable when served with a healthy side of it. (Fans still quote Coven favorite Madison Montgomery’s meme-able, “Surprise, bitch. I bet you’d thought you’d seen the last of me.”)

    Likewise, 1984 is well-versed in fun references to the decade — Hair! Spandex! Blue eye shadow! — as well as popular horror movies. The characters frequently slip in iconic one-liners, like Montana’s Ghostbusters shout-out, “There is no Montana, only Zuul!”  Zooming out, the entire story is a hodgepodge of homages to classic horror films, such as Halloween, Friday the 13th, and even Sleepaway Camp.

    From reviving the Night Stalker Richard Ramirez to fixating on the aerobics craze of the ‘80s, 1984 is heavily steeped in its influences, and it isn’t afraid to patch them on their acid-wash denim jacket. After all, this pulpy dialogue is a big part of what makes American Horror Story so damn fun in the first place — and in 1984 it actually feels earned. And not to mention, balanced with genuine slasher scares.