The sixth season of American Horror Story launched on Wednesday night as a total mystery. No theme, no premise, not even a complete cast list was given in advance to prep us and pump us up, just a collection of viral teases paying homage to a variety of B-grade horror classics, from It’s Alive to The People Under The Stairs. According to FX, many were “misdirects,” designed to keep us guessing and buzzing. You could see such stunty secrecy as a sign of franchise strength or proof of super-producer Ryan Murphy’s clout. You could also see it as a sign of an aging, waning creative enterprise resorting to trickery to drum up attention. It certainly puts a lot of pressure on the show to deliver.
I need more of a sample size to make a judgment: the premiere didn’t wow me, and it barely hooked me. There were some good jump scares, but none of it was intrinsically scary. The story suggested an interest in race, gender, and history, but did little than more flag them as potential themes. The most interesting thing about the premiere was its fuzziness. I’m still not sure what this season’s about, but the first installment did just enough to make we want to find out.
“Chapter 1” presented as a TV show entitled “My Roanoke Nightmare,” a non-fiction series profiling an alleged supernatural mystery, told with interviews with the survivors and reenactments. We were introduced to husband and wife Matt and Shelby Miller, an interracial couple looking to reboot their lives after a mugging that resulted in the loss of their unborn child. Natch, they decide the ideal way to start anew is to buy an abandoned house in the sticks of North Carolina that might as well have “HAUNTED” written in big bloody letters on the door. Not long after they move in, the weirdness starts, most of it targeting Shelby. She sees specters walking through the halls. Dudes with pitchforks and torches try to drown her in the hot tub. A downpour of pulled teeth rains on her. Poor evil magnet Shelby! As stranger things intensify, they receive reluctant help in the form of Matt’s sister, Lee, an ex-cop haunted by trauma and addiction.
In the interviews, Lily Rabe and Andre Holland played the couple and Adina Porter played Lee. In the reenactments, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Sarah Paulson played the couple and Angela Bassett played Lee. (It was amusing to see Gooding Jr. and Paulson play romance and even have a sex scene after watching them go after each other as O.J. Simpson and Marcia Clark earlier this year in The People v. O.J. Simpson.) I can’t say their characters or plight were all that compelling, but it might be too soon to make assessments. We caught glimpses of Kathy Bates and Wes Bentley, but I have no idea who they’re playing. Hillbillies? Time travelers? Ghosts?
The points of reference for “My Roanoke Nightmare” seem to be true crime shows like Nightmare Next Door, inspired-by-true-story horror flicks like The Amityville Horror or The Conjuring, and the found footage classic The Blair Witch Project. In the best scene, Shelby and Lee went down into the basement to investigate eerie sounds, only to find them coming from a TV playing footage depicting people hunting a monstrous pig-man. The characters wondered if the video was a legit capture of wilderness weirdness or a hoax. We might wonder if the video was the actual video found by the real Shelby and Lee or if it was a reenacted version of said video. Maybe I’m making this more heady that it really is. But these kind of considerations might be part of the point. “Blurred reality” might, in fact, be the operative theme of a season where history, fiction, and meta-fiction are at play and perhaps colliding with each other. (As such, American Horror Story is right at home on a night that also gives us the unreliable narrator mind-f— that is Mr. Robot and non-fiction spoofing Documentary Now!)
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It appears that “My Roanoke Nightmare” has something to do with mystery of the Roanoke colony, whose residents disappeared in 1587, and might also have something to do with unexplored American Horror Story mythology: back in season 1, spiritualist Billie Dean Howard, played by Paulson, told the story of Roanoke and cited it as an example of a possessed locale that had been successfully exorcised. In fact, there was a feeling of uncanny familiarity to “Chapter 1,” and not just because of returning actors playing new roles. The premise of a rebooting, troubled couple and physical features of their house, like the spiral stairwell, evoked previous seasons of the show, perhaps deliberately, for some as-of-yet unclear purpose. Is American Horror Story haunting itself?
There was something enjoyably strange about watching recognizable actors (Rabe, Holland, Porter) play fictional characters and even more recognizable actors (Gooding Jr., Paulson, Bassett) playing fictionalizations of those fictions. Were we to wonder if Gooding Jr., Paulson, and Bassett are playing fictional versions of themselves? The reenactment scenes were well-acted and shot with panache — which is to say, like a typical episode of American Horror Story — as opposed to the poorly acted, chintzy quality you get from a real true crime series. Is that significant? Or was American Horror Story simply not interested in taking the verisimilitude that far?
“Chapter 1” ended with Reenactment Shelby lost in the woods, the ground rippling as if reality itself was seizing, and a mass of people who clearly belong from a different time descending upon her. Is Shelby about to find herself transported back to early colonial times? Is American Horror Story about to go Outlander-in-America on us? I can’t say the premiere did enough to motivate me to make this season Must Watch for me. But the internet did. On the web and on Twitter, the speculation among fans was that each episode might be a different story with different characters altogether, at least for awhile, and then perhaps downstream, they’ll all come together in some fashion. I like the idea because it would represent a novel reinvention of the franchise, with each episode having a distinct identity, and because it would make the show a surprise from week to week. The use of mystery to market the season may have been contrived, but at this point, mystery might also be the best thing going for it, too. B