Anthology Gothic horror series American Horror Story (henceforth AHS) has, since its inception, appropriated and paid nostalgic homage to a number of horror texts drawn both from TV and cinema. Across its (currently) eight seasons, the show has garnered a cult following in the LGBTQ+ community and attracted a wealth of interest in queer academic circles[i]. I have previously argued that the appeal of AHS as the Queer Horror TV show par excellence, lies specifically in its anti-essentialist queer appropriation of both gender and genre. Via the show’s focus on the concept of identity-as-costume, the queer fans of AHS experience a pleasure-filled immersion in genre, gender, identity and temporal forms that are all effectively shown to be constructed, culturally imposed and therefore, able to be assumed and rejected at will.
The show is undoubtedly queer in terms of its themes, its characters, and arguably its very narrative architecture. The anthological format of the series features a stable of same repertory cast members playing different roles in each season and across each seasonal ‘reset’. Each season of AHS contrives to present a self-contained story while utilising the same stable of actors and actresses (very much like a theatre ensemble) playing different characters in a recognisably excessive and grotesquely camp style. The show, to a greater or lesser extent, also exudes a queer sensibility in its explicit focus on alternate sexualities, but perpetuates the penchant for the ‘performative’[ii] via an emphasis on shifting and fluid identities and the inclusion of ‘drag’ or ‘dress up’ within its narratives and aesthetics. While horror clearly dominates as the overwhelming generic, formal, thematic and aesthetic choice, it shifts (often outrageously) between gross out comedy, period melodrama, reality-TV pastiche (AHS: Roanoke (2016)) and even the musical (AHS: Asylum (2012-2013), Coven (2013-2014) and Freak Show (2015) feature blatant instances of musical pilfering and explicit musical performances).
Each season speaks to distinctive American social, cultural, and political tensions (still felt today), being set in different decades in American history from the 50s/60s to the present day. AHS’s narrative architecture serves to reinforce the queerness of its characters[iii], as they are contained in a never-ending diegesis subject to the thematic anxieties of the cycle. AHS also captures the zeitgeist of other successful TV drama in its embrace of the trend towards fetishistic nostalgia[iv] featuring frequent flashback/forwards to dates and places announced via its, now infamous, black and white Rennie Mackintosh-style inter-title cards. Across the first three seasons, each created ‘world’ has been self-contained, ranging from: the story of a family home overwhelmed with ghosts in present-day Los Angeles (AHS: Murder House (2011); to AHS: Asylum’s (2012-2013) tale of a Massachusetts mental institution which is largely set in 1964; to the history of the slave trade and a war between white witchcraft and black voodoo in New Orleans as seen in AHS: Coven (2014). Season four AHS: Freak Show (2015), set in one of America’s last Freak Show carnivals in 1950s Florida, marks a shift in the approach to the canon of AHS. The creators from this point onwards outwardly acknowledged, with the reappearance of a character from a previous season, namely Pepper (Naomi Grossman) from AHS: Asylum, that the series takes place in a multiverse of sorts which has led to ‘Easter egg’ style reappearances of characters from seasons past.
The pleasure of the identity-queering ‘dress-up’ that AHS showcases extends to what Geller and Banker note is a form of ‘temporal drag’ (2017, pg. 37), whereby the show effectively ‘wears the clothes’ of the period it re-presents in often stylistically excessive ways. While the ‘performative’ appropriation of period, gender and genre allows for self-assertion that draws attention to the constructed-ness of mainstream generic and heteronormative gender forms; it can also operate as a form of self-divestiture. The jouissance implied in this self-loss is afforded to the subject via an immersion in appropriation, ‘role play’, performance, adaptation and in the self-reflexive layering of the texts themselves.
The show perhaps reaches its intertextual peak in its sixth season, Roanoke, where the very structure of the series begins to disintegrate into parody and pastiche of various clichéd reality horror and paranormal TV programming. The lines become continually blurred between the fictional ‘reality shows: the first third of the series follows ‘My Roanoake Nightmare’ (the original interview/reconstruction documentary), before moving onto another show-within-a-show ‘Return to My Roanoake Nightmare’ (a self-referential, ‘found-footage’ style show where the actors who portrayed the ‘real life’ people in the previous show’s story go back into the haunted house with their ‘real’ counterparts). The final sections of the season are given over to ‘Crack’d’ (a show mimicking the true-crime reality series format following Lee Harris (Adina Porter) the sole survivor of the original Roanoke story), clips from ‘Spirit Chasers’ a parody of paranormal investigation serials; and finally, ‘The Lana Winters Special’, where central protagonist Lee Harris is interviewed by AHS’s returning ‘celebrity journalist’ character Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson). Dawn Keetley (2013) describes this narrative and thematic dilapidation as ‘entropic Gothic’, whereby the show’s ‘trajectory [moves] towards exhaustion and stasis […] as entropy transforms energy from useful to useless and ordered to disordered’ (2013, pg. 97). Roanoke reaches the most frenetically queer entropic exhaustion in its self-aware mise-en-abîme conceit, even making a reference to AHS’s own cult followings at various pop-culture conventions, such as Comic Con. In ‘Chapter Ten’ (Season 6 Episode 10) the ‘cast’ of ‘My Roanoke Nightmare’ appear on stage at a fan convention to reveal stories behind the headlines and are introduced and interviewed by RuPaul’s Drag Race (Logo/VH1 2008-present) alumna Trixie Mattel.
Now in its eighth season, subtitled Apocalypse, Geller and Banker’s term, ‘temporal drag’ now seems to have been extended to its own timelines within the show’s own extensive mythology. AHS: Apocalypse opens with two narrative strands that exist as red-herrings. Initially set in the present, a multitude of new, vacuous characters are seen frantically attempting to escape an impending nuclear strike on Los Angeles (after having witnessed the same happening to several major global cities on CNN). A chosen few (who have either been genetically profiled or are ridiculously rich) are selected to survive the nuclear winter in subterranean fallout shelters, run by a mysterious company called The Cooperative. The bombs drop, and the first three episodes take place in Outpost Three, a modern-Gothic underground mansion, run by staunch mistress Ms Venable (Sarah Paulson) and her henchwoman Ms Mead (Kathy Bates). The ‘chosen’, including a camped-up Joan Collins as self-important socialite Evie Gallant, adhere to ritual requiring them to wear purple Victorian period garments, the group meet nightly to dine on protein cubes around a grand dining table. Immediately the viewer is made aware of this habitual gathering as something clearly quite self-referential as to the production of the show itself. The script, mise-en-scene, delivery of lines captures the atmosphere of the obligatory ‘table read’ of early script formations. The arrival of Michael Langdon (Cody Fern) whom fans of the show will recognised from the denouement of season one, Murder House as the Anti-Christ child now grown to a young man – upsets the apple cart, literally. Pitting the guests against one another in a desperate attempt to escape the failing shelter, to vie for their place at the more luxurious ‘Sanctuary’, the majority of the assemble characters in this section of the series all die via a batch of deliberately poisoned apples. Miss Venable is murdered by her own henchwoman (who is revealed to be an android) leaving Langdon as the sole survivor.
Just as the episode seems to mark closure to this section of the narrative, three figures emerge from the atomic mist topside, and are revealed to be three of the remaining witches from season three, Coven: Cordelia (Sara Paulson); Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts) and Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy). If the first three episodes exist to do anything, they seem to offer up season eight as an anthology within an anthology, giving way to a new narrative trajectory involving the resurgent witches’ coven and their battle with Langdon and the rising threat from revolting warlocks. Along the way, this season has already allowed for nostalgic trips into the world of Coven, Hotel, and includes a full episode given over to the original cast from season one. ‘Return to Murder House’ (Season 8 Episode 6) also features a triumphant return to the show’s grand dame Jessica Lange in the role of Constance Langdon.
What seems to have occurred in this particular season of AHS is a move towards hyper-reflexivity, Apocalypse has essentially become a ‘Greatest Hits’ of AHS. While operating clearly as fan-service, the show adopts a kind of Comic-Con-style frenzy of cos-play, identities shift, are multiple, cross-over, reincarnate, and there is a drag-like self-awareneness that seems to bleed from every pore of this particular series. But to what end? Has narrative coherence, not exactly ever a strength of the AHS franchise, been sacrificed as a consequence? Yes, there is a Halloween-style fancy dress fun in the comic reanimating of Lesley Gore’s witch Coco (her power being the ability to surmise the calorie-count of any food stuff). Of course, Joan Collins’ re-emergence as an age-old movie star witch Bubbles McGee, in episode seven ‘Traitor’ is the stuff of queer horror dreams, with its shamelessly indulgent recreation of her Christmas horror section ‘…and All Through the House’ from Amicus’ anthology horror Tales from the Crypt (Francis, 1972). However, the overarching story, despite its initial post-apocalyptic conceit, seems to be borrowing from the same gender war narrative that AHS Cult (FX 2017) eventually morphed into, only this time mapped into a witches vs. warlocks fight for supremacy.
What is happening here, I fear, is a craving for nostalgia at a break-neck pace. Barely has the chance arisen for previous seasons of AHS to ‘age’ gracefully, that the show and its fans (and I myself am guilty of this) are declaring them ‘classics’ and the effusive nostalgia for these older seasons confirms this. Part of this nostalgia is the celebration of returning players and characters ranges from the scathing reappearance of Madison Montgomery who seems now to be channelling ‘über-bitch’ Chanel Oberlyn (Emma Roberts)[v] from Murphy’s short-lived series Scream Queens (Fox 2015-2016); to Sarah Paulson’s multiple appearances as Cordelia, the psychic Billie Dean Howard from Murder House and Hotel concurrently (not to mention her short stint as Victorian-styled dominatrix Ms Venable in this season). Furthermore, in its obsession with what Sarah Gwenllian-Jones calls the ‘immersive and interactive logics’ of cult television (2002, pg. 89-90) and via its performative and self-referential structures, AHS has, in essence, become lost in its own Universal ‘walk through maze’[vi], cementing the appeal of its hysterically self-reflexive, immersive nature as a cult text. While previous seasons have walked a fine line between parody, pastiche and homage of influential horror texts and soundtracks from film and television, this season’s Gothic navel-gazing seems instead to be indebted to itself as its own inspirational (un)original text.
Abbott, Stacey, Elliott-Smith, Darren, Janicker, Rebecca and Jowett, Lorna, ‘A new golden age of TV horror: a round table discussion’. Panel Presentation presented to: Cine-Excess X: Cult Genres, Traditions and Bodies: A Decade of Excess, Birmingham, UK, 10-12 November 2016. (Unpublished)
Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).
Elliott-Smith, Darren, Queer Horror Film and Television: Sexuality and Masculinity at the Margins (New York and London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2016).
Freeman, Elizabeth, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010).
Geller, T. L. and Banker, A. M., ‘”That Magic Box Lies”: Queer Theory, Seriality, and American Horror Story’ in The Velvet Light Trap. Number 79, Spring 2017, pp. 36-49.
Janicker, Rebecca (ed). Reading American Horror Story: Essays on the Television Franchise (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2017)
Niemeyer Katharina. (eds) Media and Nostalgia: Yearning for the Past, Present and Future. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)
Sevenich, Robert, ‘”Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are” Queering American Horror Story’ in Gender Forum. Special issue, Issue 54, 2015, pp.35-51.
Darren Elliott-Smith (www.queerhorrordoctor.com is Senior Lecturer in Film and TV at the University of Hertfordshire and is the author of Queer Horror Film and TV: Masculinity and Sexuality at the Margins (IB Tauris 2016). His research and publications centre on the study of gender, sexuality and identity in the Horror genre and extends to Cult film/TV, experimental film, Psychoanalysis and Cinema, and Screen Curation and Genre Programming. His forthcoming collection entitled New Queer Horror Film and TV is co-edited with John Edgar Browning and will be published by University of Wales Press.
[i] See, Janicker, R (ed). Reading American Horror Story: Essays on the Television Franchise (McFarland, 2017), T. L. Geller and A. M. Banker, ‘”That Magic Box Lies”: Queer Theory, Seriality, and American Horror Story’ The Velvet Light Trap. 2017, and R. Sevenich, ‘”Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are” Queering American Horror Story’ Gender Forum. 2015.
[ii] Judith Butler’s seminal work on gendered bodies and performance theory rejects stable categories of gender and addresses how subjects ‘perform’ sexuality and gender identity. She claims that gender is socially constructed and entirely performative. Butler (1990, pp.192-193) writes that, ‘Gender reality is created through sustained social performances’.
[iii] Explicitly queer characters range from: Murder House’s gay interior designer Chad Warwick (Zachary Quinto); the ‘outed’ investigative reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) and her girlfriend Wendy (Clea Duvall) in Asylum; Stanley (Dennis O’Hare), closeted gay ‘strongman’ Dell Toledo (Michael Chiklis) and his lover Andy (Matt Bomer) in Freak Show; Lady Gaga’s bisexual vampire The Countess, her lovers Ramona Royale (Angela Bassett), Tristan (Fran Wittrock) and Dennis O’Hare’s iconic queer bar-tender Liz Taylor in Hotel.
[iv] See for example Niemeyer K., Wentz D. (2014) ‘Nostalgia Is Not What It Used to Be: Serial Nostalgia and Nostalgic Television Series’.
[v] Some fans have indeed speculated that a late season revel in Apocalypse may in fact connect the world of AHS to Scream Queens.
[vi] As part of its ‘Halloween Horror Nights’ Universal Orlando and Universal Studios publicised immersive theatre sets based on the previous AHS seasons prior to 2017, see: https://www.orlandoweekly.com/Blogs/archives/2017/03/29/universal-releases-details-on-american-horror-story-maze-at-halloween-horror-nights-27 [last accessed, 1 May 2018]