The Very Human Terrors of 'American Horror Story'

The Very Human Terrors of 'American Horror Story'

Kristen Field


Most people would probably agree that American Horror Story is the craziest thing currently airing on television, even if they hadn’t seen a single episode of the show. This past season alone gave us a bunch of bloodthirsty vampire children killing their parents and running amok in Los Angeles, multiple half-dead addicts being sewn into hotel mattresses by a perpetually miserable Sarah Paulson, and Darren Criss eating cat food before being brutally slaughtered by Kathy Bates (who then drinks his blood, because – yes – she gets turned into a vampire, too).

However, despite this undeniable insanity – and my love-hate relationship with Ryan Murphy (see the comment in my review of Transparent about his treatment of Jill Soloway) – I am still of the firm belief that American Horror Story has something deeper to offer those who have the patience (and the stomach) to examine the show beyond its superficial shock-value.

From its very first season, American Horror Story has interspersed its moments of unapologetic violence and gore with an exploration of the terrors that we, as ‘regular’ human beings who (supposedly) don’t live in a horror film, experience on a daily basis.

I know that much of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s aim was to unpack and exploit the tropes of horror, but having approached the show as someone who’s never been into horror films and was purely drawn in by Sarah Paulson’s dynamism and nuance, the first thing that caught my attention was the presence of these quieter, corporeal moments – the possibility that, perhaps, Murphy and Falchuk might be attempting to articulate something more complex about the human condition in their innovative series.

Purely looking at this past season, set in a dilapidated hotel in Los Angeles, we have, first, the story of Liz Taylor, a trans woman who never had the courage to embrace her true self until she went on a business trip to Los Angeles and ended up staying in the Hotel Cortez. Yes, Liz’s transformation is admittedly instigated by Lady Gaga – who, through no fault of her own, can never really escape that persona in the show – but it still somehow manages to cut more deeply and ring more true than the ridiculous events surrounding it (certainly, in part, due to Denis O’Hare’s extraordinary performance).

The horror of feeling compelled to live a lie – embodied beautifully in the episode that explores Liz’s back-story – is mostly hidden in the midst of the shiny, outrageous exterior of the show, but the presence of these truly human moments in every season has convinced me that they might just be the through line of American Horror Story.

Along with Liz, there’s Kathy Bates, playing a mother who never had the love of her son and cannot understand why. True, her own love for her son might mean that she cannot bear to leave him behind in the hotel where he’s stuck as a ghost, but outlandish antics aside, their heartbreaking encounters carry with them a sense of true human anguish, superseding any horror tropes that accompany them (the son in question does eventually turn his mother into a vampire, but it really is an incredibly touching scene, I swear).

Then, of course, there’s the event that starts off this fifth season, a young boy being kidnapped in broad daylight with his father only metres away – the worst nightmare of most parents. However, the horror that stems from the randomness of this act is partly negated when we later discover that it wasn’t random at all, and I feel like a far more subtle form of horror is depicted in the insight we’re given into the kidnapped child’s mother, whose adoration for her son is matched only by her complete indifference to her daughter.

The effect of this uneven balance of love is barely hinted at over the course of the season, but we are given glimpses of the daughter’s hurt face, see her patient acceptance when she’s sent to stay with her grandmother because her parents are too preoccupied – still trying to deal, in their own ways, with the loss of their son – to look after her.

Worse than all of that, though, is when her grief-stricken mother tries to kill herself after her son is taken, even with her daughter still there, needing her. It is never explicitly explored, but the devastation of knowing that she was not reason enough for her mother to want to continue living is there, hanging over the scene and the rest of the season.

From its very first season, American Horror Story has interspersed its moments of unapologetic violence and gore with an exploration of the terrors that we, as ‘regular’ human beings who (supposedly) don’t live in a horror film, experience on a daily basis.

Later on in the season, we’re shown another parent-child relationship. Lady Gaga’s vampire ex-lover returns home after not seeing her parents for years, only to find that her mother is seriously ill and her father is experiencing the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Her mother passes away soon after, and as a result her father rapidly declines, overwhelmed by grief. This situation would be devastating enough on its own, but it gets worse. Two young men break into the father’s home one night when his daughter isn’t there, and he receives a fatal blow to his head.

When his daughter returns home to find her father still alive, she decides to turn him like she was turned. This will save him, she thinks, and maybe even cure his disease (these vampires aren’t immortal, but they have a super-charged immune system and never age). However, while the vampire’s actions save her father and halt the progress of his Alzheimer’s, he doesn’t get any of his memories back.

He is still a shell of the person he once was, and now his daughter is left to take care of him – forever, unless she can find the courage to end her own father’s life. The awfulness of this woman seeing her father in this state and knowing that she is the only person who can grant him relief from the pain and confusion of his disease is conveyed beautifully in these few short scenes, providing yet another outlook on the everyday horrors that life can corner us with.

In a much more subtle vein, there’s the loneliness experienced by Sally, a long-dead addict who is stuck indefinitely in the Hotel Cortez (not to mention the prominence of addiction in this particular season, another devastating horror experienced by so many and whose impact is so far reaching that it seems like an inescapable force of destruction). Sally’s desperate need to be loved and the anguish she feels whenever she’s left alone – again – capture something of our innate desire for human connection, for the reassurance – however misleading – that we are not alone.

Sally’s last scenes in the season finale are part-unbearably corny and part-unbearably true: having died in the nineties, before the technological boom, she’s introduced for the first time to a smart phone and given the chance to re-enter the wider world, from a distance. Receiving a crazy amount of adoration and support from people online, Sally finally feels like she might want to remain a part of the world, even if she can only witness it from the confines of the Cortez.

Many viewers might roll their eyes at this storyline, claiming that it feeds into the denigrating stereotypes older generations have imposed on Millennials, but shot through Sally’s perspective, discovering this newfound ability to connect as if it were an actual miracle, what might have been a cringe-worthy conclusion manages to be both moving and somehow revelatory. Sally can never appear in the photos or videos that she posts, but we see that she still has people who care enough about her to ask if she’s okay, and who can make her smile, even in the prison she finds herself in.

I’m not going to even try to deny that this show is insane. I mean, come on, there’s a scene with Kathy Bates and Denis O’Hare barging into a hotel room with guns a-blazing and Hotline Bling playing in the background. To me, though, it seems worthy of more than cursory dismissal, and I think there is certainly something to be gained from examining the way in which Murphy and Falchuk have hidden glimpses of the painfully human in this grotesque, brutal, glittery world.


Kristen is an aspiring playwright and undeniable fangirl. In her spare time, you might catch her at an Ingrid Michaelson concert or finding her zen on a yoga mat. She’s currently living in Chicago and studying playwriting and screenwriting at Northwestern University.