I’m a little late to the American Horror Story party, although considering it’s a terrifying party, it’s taken me a lot of courage to work my way here.
AHS is the newest offering from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the creators of Glee, and, aside from dealing with outsiders like Glee does, it couldn’t be more different.
It has a pretty basic concept – family of three move into a house with a creepy past, and weird things start happening.
Only the weird things aren’t creaking stairs, and glimpses of what could be ghosts in the mirror. Instead, there’s a housekeeper who looks old to everyone but Ben Harman (Dylan McDermott), an episode in the basement which freaks out teenager Violet Harman (Taissa Farmiga), and a strange neighbour and her daughter who seem to be stalking Vivien Harman (Connie Britton).
The Harmans move across the country to Los Angeles when Vivien catches Ben in bed with one of his students months after she has had a horrific miscarriage. As they try to repair their marriage, daughter Violet tries to work out where she fits (or doesn’t).
The previous owners of the house the Harmans have moved into died in the basement in a combined murder-suicide, which should be the first sign this is not a house anybody wants to live in.
The second sign is when Adelaide (Jamie Brewer), a girl with Down’s Syndrome, breaks into the house and tells Vivien she is going to die there. Perceptive Adelaide was previously seen in a scene at the start of the episode, years earlier, telling two boys the same thing. They died. Foreshadowing anyone? Adelaide is inexplicably drawn to the house, and has been since she was a child.
But it’s not Adelaide that’s scary, it’s her cruel, kleptomaniac, slightly mad mother Constance (Jessica Lange). She calls her daughter terrible names, steals jewellery from the Harmans and threatens the housekeeper.
Speaking of, housekeeper Moira O’Hara (the brilliant Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under) has looked after the house for years, and goodness knows how many deaths she’s seen there, and what else she knows. She looks like a 60-something to most people, but Ben sees her as a flirty 20-something. The house barely takes any time before it starts affecting people and what they see.
Ben is the most vulnerable, perhaps because he is carrying around guilt from betraying Vivien, bringing his defences down. In addition to seeing the maid as a younger version of herself, he also sleepwalks multiple times, ending up in the kitchen where he lights the cooker. The reason for his fascination with fire is slightly explained when he meets a former occupant of the house – a man badly burnt when he set fire to the property, killing his wife and two children. He warns Ben to leave the house, that it will make him do bad things. Foolishly, Ben, a psychiatrist, ignores his pleas and writes him off as crazy. Big mistake.
Meanwhile, Violet is experiencing horror inside and outside of her house. At school she encounters what can only be described as a Mean Girl, one that has irrational moments where she tries to make Violet eat a cigarette and beats her up in the lunch room. As revenge, Violet teams up with one of her dad’s patients, the creepy Tate, who convinces her to invite Mean Girl to her house and stage something that will freak her out and make her never so much as look at Violet again. But when Mean Girl and Violet go into the basement, what happens terrifies the two of them, as Tate seems to transform into a monster and attack the Mean Girl.
There are very few moments of lightness in this episode. Every one that I can think of is countered by something dark. When Vivien and Ben take a step forward in their reconciliation it’s only for Vivien to later sleep with someone she thinks is her husband (only I don’t think it is). That leads to the second moment of lightness, Vivien finding out she is pregnant again, being covered in darkness because we, as the viewer, know the baby might not be (is almost definitely not) Ben’s.
Perhaps the biggest mystery is not how and why the house has such powers, but why the Harmans don’t move out. Of course, if they did, that would make a short and rubbish television programme, so reality can be comfortably suspended for that query.
Instead, our focus is on what will happen next, what the house can do, why Adelaide can seemingly forsee events, how Constance is connected to the house and a dozen other things. With a stellar cast, I can only hope AHS continues in the same vein as this first episode – terrifying, well-constructed and brilliantly acted.