American Horror Story: Welcome to Briarcliff

Posted on October 18, 2012

Having never grown up in or around turn-of-the-century mansions, and having our contact with aging psychopathic southern belles with equally murderous ghost children following them around somewhat limited, we never really found season 1 of American Horror Story to be all that scary. Shocking, yes (especially the rather frank dialogue and envelope-pushing nudity and situations represented), but not necessarily scary per se.

Having endured 8 years of Catholic school education under the tutelage of the Sisters of Saint Joseph (commonly referred to as “The Marines of Nuns”) in the ’70s, Tom was a whimpering ball of tears by the end of last night’s season 2 premiere.

Okay, no. Not really. Although you ask any Catholic who attended grade school prior to 1980 what their reaction is to the site of an angry nun with a switch in her hand, and you’ll get at least a little twitching and flinching.

Despite the show’s title, we never really felt horror watching it; not last season, and not last night. Its stock-in-trade has always been shock rather than fear, with a very deep and gracious tip of the hat to classic horror tropes, and a wickedly biting satire of American culture. Last season’s haunted house story threw its net wide on that latter point, offering up botched abortions, school shootings, nurse-killers, teen sex, gay kinky sex, and gay parenting as topics to ponder. Because show runner Ryan Murphy knew that the things that keep Americans up all night in fear aren’t axe-wielding ghosts, but teenagers with guns or women who don’t want to remain pregnant, or gay people with gimp suits and a bassinet, or god forbid, giving birth to a developmentally disabled child. It was wicked good fun, but it was also the most accurate satire of American culture seen on television in some time.

When Murphy announced that this season would tell an all-new story with new characters (but many returning cast members), we both hashed it out and came to the conclusion that it was either going to be a devil story or an alien abduction story, because next to gay people adopting or women having abortions (or Muslim/Mexican terrorists, but that would make a pretty tough fit to this type of show), nothing scares Americans to their core more than an Exorcist-style story or a Close Encounters-gone-wrong one. Think of it: those are two types of stories that even skeptical 21st Century people still shudder over as if they could be true. We patted ourselves on the back last night for getting it right – although even we didn’t consider that the story would seem to be composed of both tropes – but we’re going to stop right there, because really, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that what we see in the first hour of the season is really going to have much at all to do with how things are going to shake up. If anything, we should look to last season’s arc and then assume that they’re going to do everything exactly the opposite.

If you remember, last season, the story played out almost exactly the way a lot of people inadvertently predicted. In other words, plenty of us skeptically opined in the early days, something along the lines of “Where the hell is this going to go? Are they just going to kill off the entire family and turn them into ghosts?” Only to find out that’s exactly what they were going to do. The show is good at playing with your expectations, offering you an obvious possible outcome, and getting you to reject it for being both too obvious and too ludicrous. Last night’s premiere gave every indication that we were dealing with abducting aliens and possible demonic influences, but it was so cagey about it, that we suspect we’re going to be surprised at some point as to what the story’s really about. Of course, that’s exactly the trap we fell into last time, but if we ponder it too long we’re going to get stuck in an ouroboros of guessing and second-guessing

As for the quality of that first episode, it was… well, a little sketchy. It was dripping with atmosphere – especially the opening five minutes with horny-toad newlyweds Adam Levine and Jenna Dewan pretty much doing every stupid thing the first-reel victims in a horror story tend to do, from entering haunted houses laughing, to having sex in them, to sticking their hands in dark, foreboding places they shouldn’t. But after that, things started moving just a little too rapidly with just a few too many jump cuts. That’s AHS’s style – and it annoyed quite a few grumpy TV critics last season – but even so, there were times last night when it got just a little out of hand.

But even if we have some slight reservations about the quality of the story-telling going forward, we can all rest easy that Queen Jessica is in the house, tearing up the scenery and scaring the SHIT out of an entire generation of 40-plus-year-old Catholics. What interests us about her character is that she’s playing all the evil nun tropes, but there’s a core of morality somewhere locked inside her, as she seems to be quite legitimately horrified at whatever that Mengele-like character seems to be doing to her patients. Other highlights include our favorite red carpet denizen of all time, Chloe Sevigny, playing a horny lady at a time when horny ladies were locked up for being crazy, and Sarah Paulson as the lesbian reporter, offering up a performance of steely determination crossed with pre-sexual-revolution terror at having to hide her life from the world. There was also a very nicely done (if slightly heavy handed) parallel drawn between gay romantic relationships and interracial ones. We can look at the latter and think, “Oh, how awful there was a time that two people in love had to hide their life from the outside world,” just as Murphy hits us over the head with “WHAT DO YOU THINK THE GAY MARRIAGE ARGUMENT IS ALL ABOUT, STUPID?”

That is what ultimately makes this show such wicked fun; it alternately mocks and pays homage to horror story tropes while at the same time, and much more subtly, mocking and making fun of Americans’ silly fears and prejudices. There really is nothing like it on TV and there never has been.
[Photo Credit: FX – Stills:]

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  • There are two things I am thanking the Gods for, just now. One is that we, as a culture, haven’t yet given up on criticizing ourselves for our own stupidity and pig-headedness.  Two is that you gents used the word ouroboros is a sentence.  Bless you.

    Addendum: Make that 3. One of my dearest, oldest friends, has the fortune to be art directing this show; a job, which he has called one of the best he has had in the industry.

    • Sobaika

      How awesome for your friend! This show seems like it’d be a really fun (if tiring?) place to work.

    • MilaXX

       I like that they feel they have an audience intelligent enough to appreciate the use of words like that.

    • formerlyAnon

       Man, art directing this show must be enormous fun. And require an OCD level of attention to detail.

    • minglumama

      I, too, was impressed with their correct usage of the word ouroboros…and the writing in general in this article. Actually read to the bottom!!

  • 14a

    Also Evan Peters is the sex. More shower scenes please.

    • JosephLamour

      I felt wrong being happy that they were hosing him down cause it definitely looked like it hurt. lol

  • muzan-e

    “I hear you got a maid.”

    This is how they’ve always gut-punched me.  Not with the horror, which has never been particularly horrific; not with the scares, which I can’t remember finding scary. But with horror of what very ordinary humanity can be – when it’s pushed to breaking point. 

    Or just for the hell of it.

    The husband who had his wife committed was, for me, the stand-out nightmare of season one. Whispering his tiny, biting cruelties into her ear, veiling all of it in a shroud of Concerned Parent. It’s a real and inexcusable terror. It’s right within your reach. And I honestly think they topped it with that single line, said almost casually and completely unexplained until he opens the door to his home and we see –

    Beautifully done. And one more thing: my southern-born husband watched this one with me, despite not much being a fan. And by the time that door opened and he realised, he pauses the DVR, turns right to me and: “Are you kidding me? Is this the South? In the sixties? This is his wife and he didn’t bring that gun home with him [i]why[i]?”

    And then five minutes later there’s lights in the windows and the husband’s charging out there with a shotgun. And really, my husband’s not even slightly a fan of the show or the genre, but he cheered for that.

    • Sobaika

      Same. The most chilling parts of last night for me for began with his friends surprising him at the garage through him charging outside with the shotgun.

  • SewingSiren

    Is this show available on line? I love obvious and ludicrous horror shows.

    • Sobaika

      Last season they had episodes on the FX website, I’m sure it’s available this season as well.

  • Sobaika

    American BUM Story.

  • MaryAtRealityTea

    Oh. My. God. Jessica Lange had me riveted. I’m so glad she’s is the queen of this show – and clearly Ryan Murphy’s heart. Whatever butchering he’s done to Glee can be totally redeemed by JESSICA LANGE being awesome on AHS. All in all it was a wild ride last night with tons being thrown at us, but I wasn’t bored and I’m definitely intrigued by where it’s going from here. 

    I’m hoping in episodes to come they’ll whittle it down to more character development of each of the core patients. Can’t wait! 

  • MilaXX

    Some shows just don’t click with me.   I’m trying this again and I have to admit in part because “all the cool kids are doing it”. Anyway I immediately recognized all the themes you mentioned, but I also immediately thought of  Betty and Barney Hill abduction with biracial couple.  So far I like this group of actors more than last season (sorry not a Dermott fan), so maybe I’ll stick around a bit longer this time.

  • So nice to have good tv to come home to.

  • I have to say that I don’t think it’s necessary for there to be any more “evil nun” characters at this point. It just seems like such a lazy cliche. Maybe it’s just because I know a lot of nuns and they are super nice and generous people? And also the last time I visited the convent they had a copy of Brokeback Mountain in the rec room.

    • Sobaika

      Well, nuns and their institutions are really different today than 40+ years ago. And taking horror cliches and tropes and messing with them is sort of what this show is all about. And I agree with TLo that there’s a moral center to Lange’s nun that was unexpected given the ‘evil nun” stereotype. I have to say, I burst out laughing when she said the line about rising against the patriarchal male.

      •  There’s actually a small monastery in my street, they used to have a childrens home their and till they were forbidden to care for children because they abused them. The evil nun stereotype is there for a reason.

    • dharmabum8

      I actually think they’re going to flip that around and have us rooting for Jessica Lange’s character at some point.

    • Aurumgirl

      Yes, I have come across nuns like that too–nuns who are very aware of what’s really wrong with the world and the church.  They are an infinitesimally small minority in the church, but they do exist.  They just rarely teach children or teenagers in Catholic schools and they certainly didn’t pre-1980’s (they would never have been allowed to, simple as that).  The “nun” fear people have,  and the fear of the cruelty and severity of all clergy left in charge of children is very well founded, even today. 

  • PinkyK

    It’s a small thing but I appreciated the subtle New England/Mass accents. Growing up (Catholic) in Connecticut the accents made it extra creepy.

  • Ah the Sisters of St. Joseph. I went to Chestnut Hill College, so I lived WITH them-luckily, switches were out and a simple dose of Catholic guilt was the standard punishment for skipping class.

    I enjoy this show on a completely base level-it’s mind numbingly stupid and often too overloaded with crappy plots, but it’s so CRAZY and Jessica is such a delight that I can’t help but watch.

  • But what about the period costumes? Okay, that’s going to be my biggest hurdle, getting over the time setting. But now I feel prepared to watch it. I can deal with shock.

  • sashaychante

    I love Jessica Lange, but I do miss Dylan McDermott from season one…especially from the rear.

    •  Ryan Murphy tweeted that he’s returning!  I’m sure they’ll find an excuse for him to get nekkid 😉

      • Imrastro

         But will Denis O’Hare be back? That’s what I want: an over the top O’Hare against Ms, Lang.

  • YousmelllikeAnnaWintour

    It’s nice to see that Chloe Sevigny is in a place where she can be treated for her multiple personality disorder.  Maybe that’s why she wore all those bad outfits in the past – research!

  • formerlyAnon

    The “Mengele-type-character” is going to keep me from watching even casually this season, that pings my personal creep-o-meter into the red zone. Thank goodness I have your posts to keep me in the loop!

    MY Sisters of St. Joseph weren’t violent or terribly scary (maybe because it was high school & I’d done public school through 8th grade), but they were one hardworking and overburdened group of women, and a very small community in a mid-sized Southern city. In retrospect (it being the ’70s) I can only imagine the internal strains they felt, working their brains out and negotiating the changes in the ambient culture and the culture of sisterhood – it was clear even to a teen that the individual reactions varied, as one would expect in a community with nearly a 50 – year span in age between oldest and youngest members.

    • Imrastro

       No Nuns for me, but plenty of Jesuits who are terrifying in a very different way!

  • n a

    I love this show not b/c the story telling is perfect, but because it pushes the boundaries of TV- it is always beautiful to look at, and they get incredible stars to take on these roles. It feels too big for TV- in a lot of ways and maybe that trumps the stories a bit, but I don’t even care- I just want to watch and see where they will ‘go’ each week.  

  • Amy

    Can I just say way to go on the casting?  James Cromwell, Jessica freakin Lange, Cholie S., Sarah Paulson, Nate from the first season (I don’t know his name but that kid impresses the heck out of me), Joseph Fiennes (still madly in love with him..even when he is dressed like a priest).

    …Adam Levine. Wait, Adam Levine? Ok his acting was more painful to watch than having your arm ripped off.  Oh well, AHS isn’t perfect but it sure as heck is fun. And as much as angry catholic nuns scare me, that alien abduction scene is enough to keep me up at night for the rest of the year. Yikes!!!

  • I loved the conversation between Lange and the lesbian teacher. The whole conversation is exactly what the whole same-sex marriage is about and I think by using it almost exactly, but in a way that already allowed you to root for the characters it concerns, it allows people to think about it in a new way. It’s easier to accept new things (though of course it shouldn’t be a ‘thing’ at all, it’s 2012 for crying out loud but let’s be realistic here) if it involves a person you care about. 

  • I personally love that Murphy as decided to tell an entirely new story with this season. Mostly because keeping stories going for seasons and seasons has always been his biggest weakness (ahem Glee). With this format it really gives him the opportunity to go balls to the wall with the ideas that are running around inside his head, without having to stuff them into one set of characters and ultimately ruining the show. I am excited to see where this goes.

  • Oh, please. Nuns don’t pluck their eyebrows.

  • I tired of the first incarnation of AHS & didn’t finish out the season (everyone turning into ghosts felt like a copout).  I didn’t feel the need to watch this new season (in spite of the dynamite cast) because the ads for it looked too plain scary.  I also have an aversion to creepy insane asylums & don’t need more fodder for nightmares banging around in my head.  I think I will experience it via these posts instead.

    •  oh me too! asylums are pretty much the scariest thing ever for me. give me all the supernatural beasties in the world and ill take a walk in a forest at night right afterwards without even thinking about it. but give me an asylum and/or ‘scientific’ experiments on humans, and ill curl up in a corner.

  • RocknLox

    1. What was that thing that he pulled out of Formerly-Tate’s neck? 
    2. And where was it trying to escape to, anyway? 
    3. Empress Jessica Lange feeling herself up in the mirror… My brains. 
    4. I can’t wait for Quinto to show up and was thrilled that he had top billing in the credits meaning we are going to see a lot of him.
    5. Was I the only person who thought of the lesbian couple (can’t remember names) – why don’t the two of them just move? I get that it’s social commentary but turning your wife over to a monster is a non-option and Lange’s character offered no proof as far as I could tell. 
    6. What WAS in those woods? 
    7. And seriously – BLOODY FACE was the scariest name they could come up with?

    I love this show. 

  • Luneowl

    I don’t think that Lange’s character’s reaction to the experimental surgeries stems as much from moral outrage as from her frustration that her victims are being taken from her and she can’t do anything about it. Tweaks her power base.

    • No, she’s got a moral core in there, of sorts. She seemed genuinely shocked when that other nun had a meltdown & started the whole I’m Bad! I’m Stupid! thing. She snapped “Don’t EVER call yourself Stupid again!”   Lange’s character is the sort of fanatic who really belies that what she’s doing is for the best.

  • I mostly agree with your take on the uniquely American fears this show brilliantly taps into.  I also think it explores these fears from different angles.  Last year’s season didn’t just try to scare conservative middle America with kinky gays and sexually active women, it also hit a sore spot around very real fears pertaining to back-alley abortions, homicidal gay bashers and blame-the-victim rape deniers.

    I learned my lesson after last season to stop trying to make sense of what’s happening and treating it like a serious mystery to be solved.  The whole thing is a massive mind-fuck and it’s best enjoyed if you just go along for the crazy ride.  This year they’re throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix – Aliens! Nazis! Serial Killers! Naughty Nuns!  I say bring it on – AHS thrives on bringing the cray-cray!

    Oh, and I’m glad Evan Peters is looking more like a man and less like a boy because I don’t feel like quite as much of a creepy cougar for lusting after him!  It also helps that he’s (probably) not playing pure evil this year.

  • Qitkat

    Coast2Coast fan? 
    That’s the only place I’ve heard of this couple before.

  • Imrastro

    I seem to remember being puzzled by the first few episodes last season. The next few were hit and miss with poor pacing some obvious “why would anyone do that moments, a few fantastic ideas and great acting. But by the end I was delighted with how it wrapped up, truly delighted that they all died. I recall clapping and laughing on the couch with absolute glee when McDermott was hanged. So, I keeping that in mind now. I seem equally puzzled at the moment and the pacing seems off. I’m hoping that’s going to lead to delighted clapping by the end..

  • Sobaika

    I didn’t know about Betty and Barney Hill. That was one of my favorite parts of last season, how aspects of the show would mirror famous American stories (Lindbergh baby, etc.)