American Horror Story hit the scene on FX five years ago in 2011, promising to scratch the itch of horror fans looking for a television show that was not only compelling but terrifying at the same time. The concept for the show is brilliant in casting a stable of actors that will play different roles each season, while also presenting a new theme each time. As it stands, the series has explored, with its seasons, the idea of a suburban family in a haunted house, an insane asylum, a coven of witches living in Louisiana, a twisted carnival, and a hotel run by vampires. Season 6, premiering shortly on FX on September 14th, has done well at keeping its theme under wraps, promising to only reveal said premise when it premieres. However, things have not been well in the house of Denmark and Horror as the series has found itself reeling in terms of critical acclaim. Though AHS: Hotel was able to inject some much needed life into the series with the introduction of Lady Gaga to the cast, the series still has a long way to go in becoming the titan of horror television that it could be.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are definitely still strong points to the series from creator Ryan Murphy, which we’ll also explore, but it definitely is in need of a tune up. Here we’ll present some ideas for bringing American Horror Story to its former glory and hopefully take it to the back to the top of the Halloween television fare.
Keep It Scary
This should be a simple one, and to be fair, American Horror Story does manage to do this sporadically but can sometimes find itself lost along the way. No better example comes in the form of the psychotic serial killer clown from American Horror Story’s fourth season: Twisty the Clown. Twisty presented a horrifying visage, and while the idea of a killer clown isn’t exactly anything new in the realm of horror, AHS’s interpretation managed to present a creature that’s appearance and actions would make audiences cringe throughout his screen time. Rather than develop Twisty as the main antagonist for “Freakshow”, the clown was unceremoniously replaced by a younger model in the form of a spoiled manchild, Dandy, who donned Twisty’s creepy mask only to just as fast ditch it. Needless to say, Dandy wasn’t as well received and didn’t have that dread inducing presence that Twisty had.
Arguably, the best part of any season of American Horror Story is the unsettling intros to each episode. This isn’t a sleight by any means against the stories or cast, but rather a boon to the creative minds behind taking a distorted jingle and applying it to each season’s theme in such unique ways. It’s in these intros that the lesson of keeping audiences on their toes and disturbing them throughout is the best route to take in creating a compelling horror anthology. Listen, horror is hard to do, just look at the number of horror movies coming out during any given time and really think about how many were able to terrify you, but American Horror Story is always able to show glimmers of true terror that could shine brighter.
Keep It Simple
Kudos has to be given to American Horror Story’s second season, Asylum, in attempting to touch upon nearly every horror trope ever created. Asylum featured insane patients, demonic possession, space aliens, scientific monstrosities, and even Death itself hovered through the walls of Briarcliff Manor. Ultimately though, this very maelstrom of horror managed to become unruly and the following seasons didn’t seem to learn from Asylum’s mistakes. By streamlining the supernatural elements and focusing on the aspects of one facet of horror per season, the series would have a much stronger impact along the way. Arguably, the best season of American Horror Story continues to be its first, appropriately titled, “Murder House”, which saw a suburban family move into a haunted house plagued with spirits. For the most part, Murder House stuck to its premise and weaved fascinating plotlines and interesting characters within the bones of a haunted house. Adding more and more elements to an already strong foundation breaks the supports.
Aside from just the supernatural elements, cutting away the fat in terms of the number of characters and subplots would also do wonders for the series. American Horror Story has an issue with characters darting from storyline to storyline, zig zagging between subplots without taking time to settle on scenes or past developments before being hurled into the next whacky adventure. Netflix has managed to create an extremely worthwhile system in not setting the number of episodes of its series and changing each episode’s runtime according to the story’s requirements. Stranger Things, for example, being a tight eight episode run had a heavy hand in keeping the show sharp, focused and fast paced. American Horror Story could take a page from Stranger Things’ lesson book and cut down on the number of episodes it puts forth to keep it lean and mean.
Stick the Landing
Each season of American Horror Story starts strong enough with its introductions as viewers enter each creepy world, but tends to fumble close to the finish line as it desperately tries to wrap up its many storylines and give a worthwhile ending to its menagerie of characters. Freakshow is once again the biggest offender in this case as Dandy, the aforementioned heir to the throne of Twisty, simply walks through the carnival where our main characters dwelled and began shooting most of the supporting cast after not getting his way in buying the park. While this was certainly something that Dandy would do, it felt unearned and seemed like a way for everything to be wrapped up in a neat package for the final curtain call. Honestly, I don’t think any of the seasons have truly managed to stick the landing as even Murder House’s bizarre “Anti-Christ” ending left many an audience member scratching their heads and served as a departure from the ghosts and ghouls that came before it.
These endings may come from the idea that each season is isolated from one another so when the finale rolls around, you can go all out guns blazing and kill characters haphazardly since they won’t be appearing in any subsequent episodes. I’m not saying that the series needs to stop the guillotine from falling, but rather to aim it a bit more concisely. Use the momentum of the earlier episodes to weave a story that acts as a fond farewell to each character rather than trying to be the most shocking.
American Horror Story will always be close to my heart, despite its flaws, but I feel like with the proper tune up, it can be a juggernaut in the television landscape. Perhaps the mysterious sixth season will manage to streamline things and bring new horror to the airwaves.