Right off the bat, the newest season of American Horror Story brings us back in time with the three most important elements of a vintage slasher classic: Sex, synth beats, and stabbing. We open on a hot summer night at Camp Redwood, where three counselors are busy, uh, breaking one of the three cardinal rules for surviving a horror movie. Amid the heavy breathing comes an ominous jingle — and then the knife. It’s a deeply unhappy ending for the threesome, and everyone else, as a hulking killer in a hooded raincoat (I Know What You Did Last Summer reference: check!) stabs everyone to death and takes their ears as souvenirs.
Fast forward past the new, retro credit sequence to 1984, where we meet our cast of young, hot victims hanging out in one of those indoor aerobics classes where the entire room, walls and all, are done up in pink shag carpeting. It seems very possible that Ryan Murphy appropriated the writing budget for this episode and spent it all on thong leotards, shimmer stockings, and sleeveless polyester turtlenecks — because the story makes no sense, but lord, the cast looks fabulous. Xavier (Cody Fern) is the AHS universe’s blonde-dipped answer to Steve from Stranger Things; Montana (Billie Lourd) is the Madonna of the crew and an aspiring aerobics competitor. Ray (Deron Horton) is the nice guy of the group (pro tip for AHS newcomers: don’t get attached.) Chet (Gus Kenworthy) is a hard-bodied athlete who lost his Olympic bid on a failed drug test. And Brooke (Emma Roberts) is, to quote Montana, the last American virgin — with the pastel wardrobe and infinite supply of peter pan collars to prove it.
Over wheatgrass shots, Xavier hands us our premise: he’s got a gig as a camp counselor for the summer, the better to flee Los Angeles before the Olympics come to town. Everyone is invited to join him, but Brooke declines. After all, she’s new in town, she just met these people, and she’s got no good reason to abandon her summer college plans for a bunch of random strangers… until the creepy serial burglar known as the Night Stalker breaks into her apartment that very night. She fights him off with a frying pan, and he flees with a promise: “I’ll find you! Satan will show me the way!”
And that’s how Brooke ends up in the back of a Winnebago with four fabulously-dressed idiots, bound for a summer of murder, I mean fun.
Along the way, the crew ticks two more boxes on the Classic Horror Checklist: first, a creepy gas station attendant (who looks like the emaciated ghost of Patrick Swayze) warns them that Bad Things Happened at the place where they’re headed. Second, an amnesiac hiker in a bandana appears in the middle of the road just in time for the van to plow right into him. (Sidenote: Breaking from tradition, the characters do not pitch the hiker off a cliff, and do not swear a blood oath never to tell anyone about the accident.) With the injured man in tow, they arrive at Camp Redwood, where they’re greeted by Margaret Booth (Leslie Grossman): a good Christian woman who was on the side of the losers in the Larry Flynt obscenity trial, and subsequently fled to the western woods, where she intends to spend the rest of her life teaching impressionable children to embrace Jesus and reject Van Halen.
But Margaret has a secret past, too! Fourteen years ago, on this very site, she was the sole survivor of the bloodbath we saw in the cold open: the worst summer camp massacre of all time. After surviving the initial stabbing, an ecstatic experience allowed her to play dead while Mr. Jingles took her ear off — so hey, she comes by her Jesus-freakiness honestly, at least. Let he who is without ears cast the first stone, etc etc.
Fast forward to late that night, when the counselors’ against-the-rules co-ed fraternizing is interrupted by Trevor (Matthew Morrison). He’s the camp’s activities director, a fellow aerobics enthusiast with —how to put this delicately? — a penis so big it should have its own zip code. It doesn’t take long for Montana to make her move, and soon after the two are getting it on in the lake (bottomless.) (Also, the lake is very deep. Ba-dum, ching.) But their acrobatic hookup is interrupted by the arrival of two more classic horror elements: a violent storm and a mysterious car. Could this be our serial killer?
Answer: yes! In a brief flashback, we see Mr. Jingles (John Carroll Lynch) escaping from a mental institution, killing a guard and releasing all the inmates before fleeing into the night. A clipping in his cell about the reopening of Camp Redwood reveals his motive: he knows that Margaret survived the massacre, and he’s going back to finish the job. When Brooke ventures into the infirmary later that night, she finds the hiker slaughtered and missing an ear — and then she finds Mr. Jingles, who chases her through the mud and then disappears (taking the dead hiker with him, natch) just in time to make Brooke look like a crazy hysteric who sees boogeymen lurking in every innocuous shadow. Thoroughly rattled and doubted by her friends, she goes to bed…
… and then wakes up to the repeated ringing of the payphone outside. When she answers it, the jingling of the killer’s keys can be heard on the other end of the line — and at the same time, the Night Stalker who attacked her at the start of the show appears lurking in the woods near the cabin. Because it’s 1984! Excess is in! And why settle for just one serial-killing psycho in your horror story when you can have more?
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