The House Has Hot and Cold Running Ghosts

What would horror be without the occasional surprise now and then?  I'm changing things up a little today by discussing a TV show rather than a film, but then this TV show is at least as good as most horror movies, and quite a bit better than the majority.


American Horror Story
Season 1: Murder House - 2011
Created by Brad Falchuk & Ryan Murphy

I'm coming to this one a little late, but then I freely admit that I have gotten to a place in my media life where I can barely stand to watch shows on a weekly basis.  Binge viewing is really the only way to watch the serial narrative anymore.  Obviously it satisfies the "what happens next?" impulse that networks rely upon to emotionally hold viewers hostage, but I find that I simply get more out of the narrative when I'm able to follow it more consistently and deliberately.  American Horror Story has really built up its viewership (and laurels) over the past three seasons, and I finally reached the point where I was ready to invest in a new series.  Each season is an independent narrative, so I am approaching them independently in my consideration.

Season One tells the story of Murder House, an LA mansion built in the 20s and site of more murders than any one person realizes (well, maybe one person).  The story pays homage to the entire haunted house genre, without ever being overly similar to any one story.  Per the conventions of the genre, the story begins with a family moving into the house.  In this case, they are the Harmons; Tom (Dylan McDermott), Vivien (Connie Britton) and Violet (Taissa Farmiga), who bring plenty of their own emotional ghosts with them.  While they had been informed in advance that the previous owners had died in an apparent murder/suicide, and we as viewers were aware from the opening scene that a couple of redheaded brats died there in the 70s, numerous other restless spirits make themselves known -- or not-so-known -- in short order.

Also making themselves known are Constance (Jessica Lange), an omnipresent and socially inappropriate neighbor and her daughter Adelaide, whom we saw as a child in the opening scene, warning the twins of their impending doom.  Constance and Adelaide let themselves into the house so often and so casually that it took a few episodes before I was sure that they weren't ghosts themselves.  Constance clearly knows more than she's telling anyone, and several of the ghosts clearly know Constance.

The first five-or-so episodes hit the viewer pretty hard with a rapid-fire onslaught of supernatural shenanigans.  By the third episode, I couldn't fathom how the family could possibly survive all the way to the end of the series at the pace things were going, and I was partly right about that.  The pace slows down significantly once the initial rush of fear dies down.  The story bogs down somewhat as tensions between characters play out, and the character roster deepens with the revelation of more of the house's history.  By the time the Black Dahlia joins the gang, she feels entirely unnecessary (hot ghost-on-ghost action notwithstanding).  There are so many dynamics between so many characters, both living and dead, that few of them seem to be allowed to play out in fulfilling ways -- especially when so many of them hate Constance, who the producers clearly adore..

There's another pacing issue that surrounds Connie Britton's character, Vivien.  She serves as one of the primary conduits for the narrative.  She's the one with the most logical arc of disbelief to gradual understanding of her situation.  It's Vivien who actually investigates the house's history and recognizes an earlier visitor in an old photo.  She's also just the most likeable.  Violet, their sullen teen daughter is a close second, but her unwillingness to share information of react quite believably when presented with the facts weakens her position.  So Vivien is, by default, not to mention by degree of victimization, our best defined protagonist.  Then she all-but-disappears for a few episodes and it really chokes the narrative.  I get the distinct feeling that Britton may have had a scheduling conflict, because the change in structure just doesn't make sense from a narrative standpoint.

Things do pick up pace as we get closer to the end, and Violet does carry a lot more of the load, but only after a draggy spot where the structure seems to have crumbled a bit.  In fact, the pace accelerates toward the end with more and more revelations and death, but then it comes to an almost screeching halt as the final episode slowly unspools its post-climax denouement.  In this more leisurely paced aftermath, there is a lot of room for questions to come up about inconsistency and illogic.  The show's self-established rules for ghosts don't always apply the same way to all characters, or even to single characters over the span of the season.  At one point, one of the ghosts is motivated to have the house sold so that her body can be dug up from the back yard, thus freeing her, and yet most of the ghosts are not buried on the grounds and are just as trapped.  While they enjoy varying degrees of ability to manifest themselves and interact directly with the living, not one of them ever burns the house down, which seemed the logical conclusion.  In one scene, a ghost stops a loved one from committing suicide, yet is nowhere to be found in the very next scene when others ghosts decide to go ahead and kill off the very same living person.

These inconsistencies are clearly cases of the details taking a backseat to the intended story, and I get that.  I just wish that the writers had been afforded a little extra time to smooth these things out ahead of time.  Murder House clearly emphasizes character and overall narrative arc over things like obedience to their own rules and the momentum of the individual episode.  I'm actually okay with that.  The level of fear that one expects from a two hour horror movie simply would not work across a 12-episode season, and it becomes necessary to vary it a lot more.  After the initial rush, Murder House becomes much more dependent on interpersonal tension and creepiness than instant scares or growing dread.  They do, in fact, do "creepy" really damned well, and there is a greater sense of sadness in loss than almost any horror movie I can think of.  It plays to the strengths of the television format rather than simply trying to make a really long movie, and that's bound to take some rethinking and repurposing of the conventions we've been so trained to expect from the genre.

Horror needed American Horror Story.

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