American Horror Story recap: Stranger Danger
In 'Home Invasion,' the haunted Harmons find themselves under siege by horror fetishists, their own demons, and -- eek! -- Jessica Lange's poisoned cupcakes!
American Horror Story
- TV Show
1968. The Broadway musical Hair is blowing sunshine on Broadway, Jim Morrison is making a spectacle of himself everywhere, and a house in Los Angeles once owned by a doctor to the stars is serving as student housing for women enrolled in nursing school. But not for long. Two cars — omens of impending doom, as they wear the show’s colors of taint and filth: Black and green. The camera dotes on the rear of the pea-toned Shelby Cobra, the distinctive logo – poisonous serpent upright and proud inside an egg-white oval – riding shotgun on the trunk. More conspicuous: The “Pat for First Lady” bumper sticker telling us that Richard Nixon is in the field, working the campaign trail, his loyal wife Pat by his side. Within months, “the great silent majority” will move the couple into the White House, setting in motion an American horror story that will coincidentally coincide with another: the emergence of the modern day, home-invading mass murderer. “Home Invasion” – a scary homily about sex, lies and cover-ups, stranger-danger fear and the toxic influence of culture — implicated a wide variety of fork-tongued snakes… as well as the women who love them.
In last week’s peek into the house’s past, the Infant Terrible in the basement ravaged wretched, red headed twins. This week’s stinger-sequence history lesson reminded us that most horror stories get their jollies from snuffing young ladies. Maria: Studious but not too square, full of Christian grace yet convinced of Universal Salvation. Gladys: Frumpy and feisty, impervious to the bigotry of her Barbie doll peers. They both liked television: Peyton Place and Laugh-In (“Sock it to me!”) On the evening of July 5th, 1968, with their haughty housemates at the Hollywood Bowl giving it up for The Doors, Maria and Gladys made the mistake of being faithful to their calling as nurses and Good Samaritan principles. When a shifty-looking stranger with a (faked) bloody scalp knocked on their door asking for help, they opened their door and let him in.
His name was Franklin. He wore black and carried no truck with Jesus. And because a nurse once poisoned him with mercury from a broken thermometer, Franklin hated all nurses and wanted them all dead. The stranger knocked Maria and Gladys to the floor and then sang a snippet of a 1958 novelty song about an overweight girl named “Fatty Patty.” At this exact moment, on the television, we heard a character from Peyton Place — the shady villain Les Harrington, no less — say the following: “As usual, you’re out of line. And in very bad taste.” Franklin smirked sinister. He drowned Gladys in the claw foot bathtub — a life-taking baptism. Then he made Maria strip and dress in a virgin white nursing gown, then hogtied and posed her on the girls’ ivory sofa — a sacrificial lamb on a living room altar, ready for slaughter… and ready to pay for the sin of our TV viewing pleasure. As Maria prepared her soul for heaven with prayer, the black clad snake scoffed and made it clear: This is The End. “I told you, Jesus isn’t going to save you.” He confused Maria’s profession of spiritual salvation with a plea for deliverance from worldly evil. She was really giving Franklin the finger of faith: You can take my body; you can’t touch my soul. All hail Maria, full of steel. (Or delusion, if you don’t go that way.) But whatever: Franklin stabbed her repeatedly in the small of her back, and all Maria could do was take it and take it and take it, and scream and scream and scream. Sock it to me, indeed.
“Home Invasion” continued American Horror Story’s storytelling m.o. of building stories out of pieces and planks of other horror stories. The fusion can be very clever. In an episode reminiscent to the 2008 home invasion/serial killer flick The Strangers, I loved how Violet was reading Albert Camus’ chilling philosophical novel The Stranger. I’m torn about drawing inspiration so directly from real-life tragedy to create fiction. See: Modeling Franklin so specifically on Richard Franklin Speck, who murdered 8 student nurses in their Chicago townhouse dormitory in 1966. (As the show conceded: “As usual, you’re out of line. And in very bad taste.”) Still, the blurring of fact and fantasy feels ironically appropriate for a story about a family whose understanding of reality is being challenged and subverted — for better or worse — by the unreal elements of their house. It also illustrates the feedback-loop nature of culture creation. Maria’s assault and stabbing was set to shrieking violins — a copycat version of the soundtrack stinger in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It was also staged in a way similar to a real-life murder committed by The Zodiac Killer, who began slaying in late 1968. (Of course, I only recognized the Zodiac m.o. because I had seen David Fincher’s 2007 movie about the still-unsolved case.) “Home Invasion” reminded me that the late sixties outbreak of serial killers and mass murderers really did taint the culture. They made us feel unsafe. These monsters also captured the imagination, too. See: the post-Psycho/Manson boom in slasher movies and true crime flicks. Which, in turn, can make us feel even more unsafe.
The episode dramatized the concept of “home invasion” in literal and symbolic ways. Adelaide infiltrated the Harmon home yet again — this time to play ball with the Infant Terrible in the basement. (A nice visual metaphor for the facing your fears/taming your fears advice that Ben tells his patients. Also a metaphor for becoming too comfy-friendly with our demons, too.) Tate got back into the house at night after being kicked out of it by Ben to watch Violet as she slept… although we later received confirmation that Tate is a spirit. Maybe the Harmons have invaded his home? Guilt-wracked Ben tried to prevent the legacy of his sinful past from entering his home and subverting his second chance life. And then there was Constance’s bid to push a trojan horse of Ipecac-spiked cupcakes into the Harmon house … and into Violet’s mouth. But why? What’s her beef with the Harmons’ daughter? We’ll explore many of these insidious incursions in greater depth as move along, but first, let’s talk about one of the episode’s more peculiar invasion stories: Leah’s hair.
NEXT: “Devil’s haircut! In my mind! Devil’s haircut! In my mind!”
The swimming pool is empty, drained of its original purpose. It’s now a skate park for kids, a hang-out for freaks and geeks. Violet and Leah sit on the edge at the deep end. Last week, they were enemies. For now, they are allies, united by a shared existential crisis: Making sense of what happened in the basement. Violet: It was meaningless. Just theater. Just Tate producing creepy claptrap to terrorize bully Leah and earn Violet’s applause. Leah: Bulls–t. Her proofs: The deep gouges on her face and her new hock-white locks, hidden behind large sunglasses and a floppy purple hat. It was that thing, she says. The thing with the mouth. Dammit if it didn’t put a chill in her – a spook she can’t shake. “My hair is turning white from fear,” she says. “Yeah, I read it on the Internet! That’s possible!”
She’s wrong, of course. Fear can’t make your hair turn white. What will turn your hair white, though, is an immune deficiency disorder. A breakdown in the body’s ability to defend itself against invasion from strange, degrading elements. Any number of websites will tell you that. Still, the idea somehow got in her mind, tainted her thinking, warped the way she viewed the world and herself. Now, in the very next scene, “Home Invasion” demonstrated how pop culture can mess with you in this way. As the conversation between Violet and Leah concluded with Leah saying she’s become a born again believer in the devil, we cut to the stained glass window in the front door of the Harmon house. We see a shape. A family crest? The head of a flower? (That’s the recurring motif in the other windows.) But I saw something different, and perhaps you did, too: A devil’s head. Horns and pointy ears. Even if it’s not a devil’s head, what’s interesting to me –- and most relevant to the themes of the episode – is how the hell the idea even got into my brain. Did Leah put it there? Would I have even seen “devil” without Leah’s prompt?
The theme of the Influencing Machine of culture was more potently dramatized through Constance and her daughter, Adelaide. We met them as Constance was making her trojan horse cupcakes and as Addy was flipping through fashion magazines in their fifties time-warp kitchen. Addy saw a smiling, fresh-faced brunette in a spotless white dress on one of the covers. The headline read: “Mirror, Mirror: How To Look 10 years Younger.” Addy asked the question that many women ask when confronted with images like these: “How come I don’t look like these other girls?” Constance quickly responded: “Because that’s the way you were born,” she says. “But you were born with… other gifts.” Addy’s response: “Like what?” Constance popped, pissed that her daughter couldn’t just accept her phony grace at face value. “Jesus Christ on a stick, I don’t know! Finger painting!” Then she ordered the girl to spit into her cupcake batter. Just wrong. So funny.
The more she talked, Constance revealed herself to be a woman warped by the cult of youth and beauty. While trying in vain to deliver her
poisoned apples Ipecac-spiked cupcakes to Snow White Violet, the vain and evil queen went rhapsodic as she told Vivien about her former husband’s matinee idol handsomeness. “The spitting image of Van Johnson,” she sighed. Given her own highly esteemed Grace Kelly/Doris Day (i.e., Jessica Lange!) gorgeousness, Constance was convinced they would produce “little cherub children.” Instead, three of her four kids were born with Down’s syndrome, including Addy. “My womb was cursed,” said Constance. “Our beauty was an affront to the gods.” But what about that fourth child? “A model of physical perfection. He was my gift. But I lost him to… other things,” Constance said, wiping her eyes and dropping the subject. “Enough sad talk.” Looking forward to hearing more of that backstory, soon.
Then there was the “business meeting” between Constance and her gardener and wannabe model Travis, a studly himbo with flowing brown hair. He looked like… well, Jesus on a stick, minus the beard. And the stick. Constance gazed upon her gardener’s visage with lusty awe. She spoke of “pillow talk.” He didn’t know what meant. “Of course you don’t,” she smirked.
NEXT: “People are strange, when you’re a stranger, faces look ugly, when you’re alone…”
Enter the buzz kill. Addy invaded her mother’s room to tell Constance of the horror story unfolding in the Harmon home. Constance punished her daughter by locking her up in the Bad Girl Closet, whose cramped interior was wall to wall with mirrors. And a light. Constance turned it on. “Look at yourself. Look at yourself hard.” Addy did as she was told. There was a pause. In that moment, she beheld the face that looked so different compared to the pictures in her mother’s magazines. Without any ideas or voices in her head to protect her from the attack on her self-worth – an immunity system that should have been instilled by her a loving, wise mother – Addy, a woman estranged from herself, screamed the stranger screaming right back at her. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the cruelest one of all? The evil queen of American Horror Story, Constance, that’s who.
The ironic, punchline to this twisted-clever skewering of our toxic, esteem-poisoning youth & beauty culture: In the very next moment, we got that shot of another culture-warped female, Bianca, puking up one of Constance’s Ipecac-spiked cupcakes. “That isn’t right,” groaned the girl. This, in an episode that gave us a reference to a certain Superstar famously afflicted with an eating disorder, and who died, tragically and early, from an assortment of complications stemming from that disease… as well as an overdose of Ipecac. But enough sad talk.
“Salvation.” Ben Harmon is fixated with the idea, the way Constance is fixated on youth and beauty. Which means he’s actually ruled by its opposite, a fear of damnation, the way Constance is actually ruled by a fear of death. Ben needs to shrink himself and “face his fear” and forgive himself. Until then: Those bad dreams will keep chasing him. In “Home Invasion,” the snakes in Ben’s brain bit anew and poisoned his thinking, causing him to betray the trust of his family all over again.
Meet Hayden, Ben’s psych student sex buddy – and, I suspect, his Fatal Attraction in the making. Ben had set a don’t-call-me-anymore boundary with her, but Hayden had to violate it to deliver some important news: She was pregnant. With his child. Which made me confused about the show’s timeline. Vivien caught Ben and Hayden screwing a year ago. Did Ben keep seeing Hayden? I think so. Like the house, the horror story of Ben’s adultery has epic scope. Sex addict, perhaps?
Hayden promised to get an abortion. But she wanted Ben in Boston for support. He should have come clean with Vivien, but he didn’t. Hayden’s news activated his shame all over again, and the damnation poison spoiled his reasoning. Old pathology kicked in. Conceal. Compartmentalize. Run away. An encounter with Larry Harvey convinced him that confession would not be good for his soul, that it risked scorching his second chance life with his family. Anyway, the Harmons had a legitimate child on the way. The incarnation of their new beginning; the christening of his born again life. Salvation. “You have no choice,” Harvey told him. “You have to do what you need to do to save your family. You’re going to have to lie.” Basically: Go Watergate, young man! And so Tricky Dick Ben told Vivien that he needed to spend a few days in Boston to care for a former patient who had attempted suicide. Vivien’s response: “You know what you are, Ben Harmon? A good man.” So much for earning that redemption. Doesn’t he know that it’s telling the truth that sets you free?
Cut to: Hayden’s Place. The TV references in the opening act set this scene up. On Laugh-In, we had Dan Rowen chide a blonde beauty for her naiveté: “Your heart is in the right place – it’s your head I’m worried about.” On Peyton Place, we heard Leslie Harrington insist: “It’s the intention that counts. I can assure you my interest is quite genuine.” And in Hayden’s apartment, we got a scene between an allegedly well-meaning cad and a woman whose head and heart were not on the same page. Ben tried to make it clear the affair was over… even as he sipped wine with her and allowed her to cozy next to him. Hayden insisted she was over Ben, that their night together was a desert island affair. Isolated; outside of continuity. Bulls–t. When Ben’s phone rang and he checked it, she snapped. How dare he shatter her illusion of re-togetherness? “All I ever wanted was for you to love me!” she sobbed. Ben made a show of his sincerity by surrendering his phone to her. But even as he consoled her, Ben’s eyes flashed with Michael Douglas panic. Hide the rabbits! Hide the rabbits!
NEXT: Sisterhood (and one brother) of the Traveling Sycophants
The next day, at the abortion clinic, Ben promised to park himself in the waiting room and be there for Hayden when the procedure was over. But then he heard his phone ring in her bag, and he saw all those urgent messages from the wife he was betraying all over again – signal flares from a horror show unfolding in his very home. Ben dropped the bag and scrammed. We were left to wonder: Will we be seeing Hayden again? And if/when we do: Will she be with or sans that child?
While Ben was away, Vivien was home feuding with Violet (who bristled at her mother for endangering her health — and trying to fix her marriage — with a new baby) and feeling out-of-sorts from her pregnancy. No, she didn’t have morning sickness. And that was the problem. Unlike her previous pregnancies, this one had her feeling… fine. And feeling fine filled Vivien with discombobulation and fear. Now, for all we know at this point, Vivien’s instincts could be correct. After all, she could be carrying a demonic little cobra in that womb. (By the way: “BRA 762” — the license plate on that Shelby Cobra? BRA and 762 are acronyms and numerical codes, respectively, for different kinds of potential pregnancy complications.) But in the context of this episode, Vivien’s angst was a metaphor for damaged people who can’t discern good from bad, healthy from sick.
And with that, we come to the newest fetish freak to screw with Vivien. Some fun facts about Bianca Forest, a woman lost in the woods of her own mind. She was a struggling actress. And she claimed to have a recurring dream of being cut in half while escaping the voice of Karen Carpenter singing through the speakers of a stalled elevator. “I’m on top of the world lookin’ down on creation/And the only explanation I can find/Is the love that I’ve found ever since you’ve been around/Your love’s put me on top of the world.” (So sad how our mountaintop dreams have devolved since 1968. But 40 years of cultural cynicism will taint you that way.) Ben suggested the dream represented some inner, unresolved pain. Bianca replied: Yes! I have internalized our culture’s despair since the “Age of Aquarius” failed to dawn, and I’m lost in the total eclipse of my heart! Where’s my sunshine? LET THE SUNSHINE IN!” No, actually, she said this: “I just think I’m afraid of getting chopped in half.” Sock it to me!
Of course, maybe Bianca was making that whole thing up. (Inspired by that demon elevator movie Devil, no doubt.) After all, the only reason she took the session with Dr. Harmon was to case his house, all in preparation of chasing her true dream. Bianca was a member of a geeky-gross trio of horror fetishists that idolized nurse-killing Franklin. “Our Franklin,” they called him. “He was the first. Before Manson. He changed the culture.” The threesome had an awful desire: To pay “tribute” to Franklin by replicating his murders inside the Harmon house. Bianca’s dopey, demented associates: Guy and Fiona, who played the role of bloody-scalped doorknocker in the home invasion. Vivien wasn’t about to allow some druggy-pale white trash into her home — that much has changed since in 1968, too — but she offered to call the police for the girl. But Bianca had cased well, and The Strangers found a way inside, anyway. Vivien was given the role of Maria. Violet was given the role of Gladys. The giggly ghouls got some jollies from fondling the very same ceramic bowl that Franklin used to bash Maria across the face and counted the minutes to copycat time…
Oh, but they were doomed from the start. An episode that began by reminding us of horror genre misogyny ended with Vivien and Violet – and a few surprise guests — making fools of horror geeks. In the process, their rebellion revealed a few secrets about the house and suggested possibilities of its purpose. Vivien got a jump on Guy and brained him with his bowl. Meanwhile, Violet got a helpful tip from Tate, who despite being banished from her life and house by Ben earlier in the episode found a way back into both…because Tate is a spirit. The vigilant, violent specter told Violet: Get Fiona to the basement. Not a problem. Turned out the home’s original claw foot tub was downstairs. If the freaky Franks wanted to get the tribute right, Violet told Fiona she’d have to drown her in the basement. (I loved Violet’s intense cool throughout this sequence. And I laughed at the moment when Violet — with her appreciation of absurdist, outsider art — took a moment to admire and inquire about the nurse outfit Fiona wanted her to wear. “Vintage?” No, the copycat killer said: Just a knock-off.)
While Fiona marched Violet away, Tate took out Bianca, who was already a hurting unit: She had made mistake of eating one of Constance’s Ipecac-spiked cupcakes. A poisoned treat, from one witch to another. BARF! Tate gave Bianca a Lizzie Borden Heimlich – an axe chop to Bianca’s tainted tummy. (Don’t try that one at home.) Timber! Down went Miserable Miss Forest.
NEXT: The Evil Empire of Undead Victims Strikes Back
Bianca bumbled away, smearing her blood all over the walls; her corpse would later be found down the block by police. Again, here’s where American Horror Story’s true crime matrix becomes somewhat icky. Sharon Tate: Manson family victim. Rosemary LaBianca: Manson family victim. Her blood was smeared on the walls of her home, and used to write the words “Healter Skelter” (“Helter Skelter,” misspelled.) Brutal. But the climax suggested method to this madness. In the basement, Violet walked Fiona into Tate’s trap. The bathtub was full of water. Inside: Dead Gladys. Who suddenly sat upright in the tub. Undead Gladys! Looking muy pissed, too. Soon, Guy bumbled down the stairs, looking for his gloom cookie cohorts. Instead he found Undead Gladys, now joined by Undead Maria. And he screamed. When we next saw Fiona and Guy, they were dead, their corpses baring the same gouges that the basement’s Infant Terrible had left on Leah’s face. Do the vengeful spirits of Gladys and Maria haunt the house, as well? Or was the Infant Terrible playing them as parts? Regardless, I liked the idea that Franklin’s victims got to avenge themselves by attacking his cultural legacy. Is that what American Horror Story is chasing, too? Fighting back against a culture toxic with bad ideas, and worse, hooked on them? American Horror Story: Your protection against social (meme) disease.
Tate was joined in the basement by Moira (cleaner of all house messes) and Constance, finally roused to action after seeing Vivien and Violet run down the street after escaping Murder House. Constance took a gander at the carnage and took Christ’s name in vain yet again. A snapshot of why people can’t believe in a benevolent god: The problem of evil; the problem of suffering; and the problem of mutant children living in your basement. Interesting how Constance initially suspected Tate of the basement bloodbath. Did you wonder if Tate might be Constance’s kid? I did. (Counter-argument: We saw Ben call Tate’s mother — a “Mrs. Langdon” — in order to terminate Tate as a client. But perhaps “Mrs. Langdon” is but a mask for Constance? FUN FACT! Verne Langdon was a famous maker of monster masks, an icon among horror enthusiasts.) Tate said they’d have to make like Nixon’s plumbers and cover-up the murders “if you want me to continue seeing him.” He seemed to direct the comment to Evil Queen Constance, not old maid Moira, but I wasn’t sure. Clearly, Tate is in league with one of the two women – or both – and is working toward a larger goal that requires maintaining a presence in the lives of Harmon family, especially Ben. My theory: Tate didn’t die in the house – he’s very much a home invader, a ghost stranger who’s latched onto this very piece of un(real) estate because it can help him accomplish his goal: Worming his way into a new body. His chosen vessel: Either the baby inside Vivien — or Ben himself. The boy is literally trying to get inside his shrink’s head.
In the coda, Violet gained new eyes for her mom, declaring her “brave,” but her bitterness for her father intensified. Vivien had no such animosity toward Ben for not being there during the home invasion — but she no longer believed that the house should be the site for The Harmon Family Rebuilding Project. She told Ben the house was no longer their home — because she wanted to sell it. Do you think they’ll go through with it? Better question: What do you think will change Vivien’s mind? More questions for you. The revelation that Moira once worked for Constance — do you think that means Constance once lived in the house? Will Ben keep Tate as a patient out of gratitude for helping save his family? And we saw that Violet saw Tate melt into the walls — will she confront her boogeyman bodyguard about it? Look forward to reading your answers. And by the way: If you have questions for American Horror Story co-creator Ryan Murphy, leave them here, or head over to this week’s AHS Q&A with the producer. Our Tim Stack will have answers for you next week.
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American Horror Story
An anthology series that centers on different characters and locations, including a haunted house, an insane asylum, a witch coven, a freak show, and a hotel.