American Horror Story: Murder House
Posted by Holly
I have something of a complicated relationship with Ryan Murphy’s works. I was an avid fan of Nip/Tuck, and followed it through until the very end, and so I knew full well going into American Horror Story the gamut of quality his shows can range through. They can be captivating, in a manic sort of way, or they can fall apart completely, tripping over loose plot threads as they go down. So where does the first chapter of American Horror Story fall? It seems to have a good amount of both the peaks and valleys that Murphy’s shows can create, all in one season.
Murder House is the first story of the series, and it tells the tale of the Harmon family in their move from Boston to L.A. The move is facilitated, primarily, by an affair Ben had with a young student of his back in Boston. This causes friction between him and his wife, Vivien, as well as distress for their teenage daughter, Violet. However, once they move into their new house, they begin to understand that what they were running away from is not nearly as bad, or as dangerous, as what they face in their new home.
First of all, I think that this season has a lot of what makes some of Murphy’s work successful – there’s a lot going on here, certainly, and there’s a new element of the plot introduced in nearly every episode. The keeps the pace and the momentum going from episode to episode, without the sense of lag you might find in other serialized TV shows. And unlike in some of Murphy’s other shows, you can boil most of these plot elements down into one story, ultimately, as they begin to intertwine and mingle with each other.
Murder House is, at its core, a classic haunted house story dialed up to 11; there isn’t one ghost with vengeful intentions stalking the family in the home. There isn’t a wrongdoing that caused the haunting that can be sated or somehow rectified. The house is a home to a string of misfortune, anger, and murder, to the point where the house is infused with that energy, and keeps perpetuating death and destruction, each new death adding another new spirit to the roster. And there are plenty of deaths to keep this house fed.
There’s some decent eeriness here, even in the midst of the madness. The first appearance of the Rubber Man is unsettling, and some of the ghosts the family encounters are genuinely frightening. I think the scares in this are much more successful when they’re quiet and slow, which the show doesn’t always make the time for, sometimes opting to go for something more shocking instead. Even then, some of the shocks land well, and are truly unnerving; others feel more like they’re pigeonholed in for the sake of it.
As for female presence, that’s a mixed bag for me. I get the sense that Murphy sincerely tries to be forward thinking, but often misses the mark. There’s a wonderful conversation between Vivien and Moira in one episode, in which they discuss the origin of hysteria, an illness thought up by men to keep women under control, and it was a wonderfully poignant conversation for these two women to have – especially with Vivien being made to think she was insane. On the other hand, the last few episodes of the series devolve into nearly every female character on the show being obsessed with motherhood and babies, almost without exception. Not to mention the use of one of my least favorite tropes, supernatural pregnancy.
Which brings me to the rape. One of the major plot points of the season is a woman unknowingly being raped, becoming pregnant from said rape, and then dying while delivering the baby created by the rape. It seems that this powerful, dangerous child was the end game of the series, which ultimately made the woman who was raped the disposable plot device to get us there. It’s hard not to feel a bit put off by that, since I grew to sympathize with and care about this character, and I felt she deserved more character resolution. Even if she needed to be killed off, it felt dismissive to have her death play out the way it did.
On the flip side, there are complex parts for women in the series, as well as LGBT representation, and a very sympathetic character with Down Syndrome – all of which are notable highlights. Not to mention the formidable presence of Jessica Lange, as well as Frances Conroy, who deliver solid performances in their respective roles.
American Horror Story: Murder House is an imperfect, but still intriguing, take on the haunted house story. It might not be reinventing the wheel, but it’s giving its own perspective on what the genre should be, and taking it to the extreme. If nothing else, it’s shocking, campy fun, and is worth dipping your toe in with the first few episodes to see if it’s up your alley.
Rating: 3 out of 5. So much potential, and some really fun things, but not without its problems. Worth giving a watch.
Scariness level: I think the strength of this series lies in its ability to create strange and unsettling visuals, and there are plenty of those. Some truly creepy moments, especially in the early episodes.
Violence level: High up there. Likely as far as they can go, violence wise, on TV. I can’t quite list them all, but suffice to say that rape, shootings, and suicide depictions are only the tip of the iceberg.
Bechdel test: Passes, ultimately, though I do think the women in this are a bit too focused on men and babies.
Mako Mori test: I’m hesitant – Vivien and Violet are mostly our point of view women, and their stories revolve around men. Constance might squeeze this through, her story isn’t entirely reliant on male characters.