American Horror Story has returned to its roots, and it’s glorious. The same show that had me writing it off after one gyrating, screwdriver strap-on too many, had me absolutely glued to the television as it premiered Season 6: My Roanoke Nightmare.
After five seasons of increasingly superfluous gore, a decline in captivating storytelling and a plateau in overall audience buzz, American Horror Story desperately needed to reinvent itself. Fortunately, and not a moment too late, Ryan Murphy and the AHS team did just that. Instead of announcing the Season 6 theme early, they taunted their loyal followers with teasers and kept them guessing.
What’s beautiful about this is that the marketing really worked. Evading the ultimate question could have backfired, but instead it drew fans in. Their guerrilla tactics even had naysayers like me intrigued, and willing to give the show a second chance. All proposed storylines seemed plausible, even though only one was the real deal. And now, only one “Chapter” into American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare and I’m hooked. Hooked in the way I was five years ago after the premiere of Season 1 – thrilled with the inventive turn that Murphy has taken; the decision to go where no one truly expected – back to the beginning.
American Horror Story. Is there truly anything more genuinely terrifying than old, murderous folklore? Whispers of ghosts, rumors of hauntings and vengeful spirits? Old mansions in old woods in old towns… These are the things that make American horror stories so vivid and so chilling. Season 1 capitalized on this concept. No one had dared take an old fashioned murder mystery and turn it into a racey television miniseries quite like Ryan Murphy did. Season 2 didn’t disappoint either, with hints at post-Hitler/Goebbels scientific experiments, electroshock therapy, and demonic superstition within the walls of an asylum. And then, somewhere along the way, the show began to stray from what made it so perfect:
American horror without the story became nothing but gore and exploit. The suspense and fear was traded for the grotesque, which was in turn paraded for shock value. That high is like an adrenalin rush. It packs a punch, but doesn’t last. If this season premiere hadn’t taken a fresh breath, I don’t think the show would have lasted either.
The important thing to remember about American Horror Story is that it’s one of a kind. Conceptually it stands strong, and even those who had given up or dropped off like me have always secretly been rooting for the show since its inception. My Roanoke Nightmare was everything it needed to be. It showed perfect restraint. Unlike the last few seasons, which had defaulted to things like violent rape scenes or mutilated bodies in cages, this Season 6 premiere switched gears completely. The story and the setting felt real, with talking head interviews, testimonials and reenactments. More importantly though, it was genuinely scary. I wasn’t grossed out; I was a nervous wreck. I was the kind of scared that makes you want to get up and double check your locks, but you can’t because you’re too frozen in place to actually stand up. I had an entire glass of wine that I held four inches from my face, but forgot to actually drink… although I almost wore it all over myself after the big jump-scare and a few choice expletives about two-thirds of the way in.
Aside from its obnoxious Mercedes Benz promotions at the beginning, the plot grabs you right away. The time is set in present day, and an annoyingly naive, young interracial couple begins to tell how their struggles unfolded. The show then goes from testimonial interviews to reenactment scenes, as AHS fan favorite Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. play those afflicted.
This yoga instructor and traveling salesman are assaulted in LA while walking in the city, there’s a miscarriage which leads to an empty need to start over, and then a scenic drive to an old abandoned house, which they decide to buy and refurbish… and so on. As a viewer, it’s all very familiar. There’s even a Blair Witch moment with hanging straw dolls that has you wondering if they’re not exactly the same thing. Oddly though, that’s all okay, because even though you feel like it’s all been done before, the concept is never not scary. Ryan Murphy’s writing makes the show its own, combining a little traditional (historic farm house, neighbors straight off the set of Deliverance, strange sightings down the end of the hallway) with a little of his own AHS flavor (violating camera angles, hail storms made of teeth, masked prowlers with torches, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s ass!). It’s the perfect recipe. There are also some other brief character introductions I can’t wait to see more of: Adina Porter (Tara’s mom from True Blood) Angela Bassett, and of course Kathy Bates, whose three second appearance had me yelling, “YESSSSSSSSS!” at the TV. Let’s just hope Murphy can keep this one cooking slowly, and all the way through.
With the first episode underway, I’m not pretending this season of American Horror Story won’t maintain some of it’s signature shock tactics as it progresses. It should. I do hope; however, that the writing and not the gore is what drives the plot. From the little I’ve seen so far, I couldn’t have dreamed up this season’s direction any better. The show is off to a great start. If it can find the right balance, My Roanoke Nightmare might be the best American Horror Story season of all.