Watching American Horror Story isn’t like watching a typical horror movie – say, one produced by the growing Blumehouse franchise. Many Blumehouse movies provoke terror with every unexpected light flicker or distant thump; some magic happens in the production of these movies, a magic that can leave even the most jaded horror fans titillated. But then, that’s probably not the point of American Horror Story, a show that seeks to shock more than scare, to entice more than terrify. While in most horror stories, the characters are vehicles for a terrifying plot, American Horror Story: Season Five: Haunted Hotel, is a complex character study, rife with flashbacks and interspersed with random acts of violence committed on sometimes transient characters. If the goal of Season Five is to make viewers grit their teeth and cover their eyes, goal not met, American Horror Story. But I don’t think that is the goal of American Horror Story – or any contemporary T.V. Horror, including Showtime’s new hit, Penny Dreadful, which is equally exciting and worth discussing. American Horror Story – and especially Season Five, Haunted Hotel – seeks to take the taboo, the abhorrent, the grotesque, and dangle it in front of your eyes playfully, forcing you to admit that while, yes, the show could be scarier, it’s taking classic horror to a new, temptingly obscene plane.
Significantly, American Horror Story grips you with the development of its characters. In this way, the show is not unlike a T.V. drama, and not like many contemporary horror films. Of course, a season’s worth of airtime gives the show more flexibility to develop intricate, refreshingly human characters. The beauty of this development is that the viewer connects with the hunted and the hunters. Lady Gaga, who plays a sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and ultimately murderous vampire with grace and confidence, is brilliant and seductive in season five as The Countess. But she is humanized, and that makes her more alluring but less scary. Ironically, her human-ness develops as she basks in a pile of blood, next to a soaked, crimson corpse, and makes love to a male model, Tristan Duffy, played by Finn Wittrock. Grotesque, yes? But not subtle enough to be eerie. If there is any fault in this season, the fault may be that the objective to break new ground in the genre, though achieved, is too obvious to the viewer. But can you really accuse a show of “trying too hard” when it ultimately succeeds?
This season also undertakes some intriguing examinations of mortality, immortality, and, shall we say, reverse spirituality? Wittrock’s character asks if a silver bullet or a stake through the heart can kill him, to which The Countess replies, “Bitch, of course it can,” a line she was practically born to deliver with delicious Gaga sass. And this season doesn’t stop with an examination of mortality and immortality; Gaga’s first lover tells her: “You said when you brought me back from the brink of death it was the closest thing you ever had to a spiritual experience.” This unexpected line may cause us to redefine the term “spirituality” and question the now-hazy distinction between feelings experienced when in communion with the divine and feelings experienced by the undead. A call to the divine also happens in a flashback, when the serial-murderer who built the hotel talks to one of his victims, who tells him: “God is in my heart, so I know there is always hope.” The victim goes on to claim, “As long as there is a God, men like you can kill thousands, millions, and you will never find peace.” Paradoxical examples? Perhaps. But they provide satisfying fodder for discussion and contemplation.
Of course, any self-respecting haunted hotel story has to give a nod to its predecessors. American Horror Story: Haunted Hotel definitely mirrors The Shining in small ways. Whether the nod to Stephen King’s The Shining – masterfully directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1980 – was incidental or intentional, American Horror Story’s swanky hotel bar, semi-mysterious bartender, and concomitant huge ballroom are excitingly reminiscent of The Overlook hotel in The Shining. Jack Torrence is a recovering alcoholic in The Shining, situated at the bar, trying not to drink, a situation that this season’s detective and male protagonist also finds himself in. And, bonus, like in The Shining, there are creepy children who appear at the end of the hallway. What more could you ask of a haunted hotel?
Well, perhaps you could ask for a little more. There is the quintessentially American horror story – or, perhaps, quintessentially American media– barrage of drug use and sex, which is fine – I’m no prude – and maybe these things are necessary for the vibe of the show, but the excess of these elements seems cliché sometimes. And there are some characters I don’t care enough about to be interested in yet. Sarah Paulson plays a heroine-addicted prostitute who lives at the hotel, and after seeing her as the nurturing, maternal headmistress witch in American Horror Story Coven, she does sweet more naturally than degenerate.
But what I think the show most lacks is the “ambience of creepy,” that unsettling feeling you get during a good ghost story. By now gossip has it that Hotel Cortez in American Horror Story is loosely based off Hotel Cecil, also situated in Downtown Los Angeles, and a former host to murders, serial killers, and the mysterious death of a Canadian tourist named Elise Lam, who was found naked in a water tank, next to her clothes – a death that was later ruled accidental. I couldn’t get that story out of my mind the night I heard it, but last night I was easily able to dismiss the most recent incarnation of American Horror Story and go to sleep.
I enjoyed watching the second episode of American Horror Story’s fifth season, and I plan on tuning in again next week. But there’s something to be said for the “subtly creepy,” the type of horror that causes you to wince and hide your face during the show, the kind of horror that leaves a lingering feeling of disquiet afterward. How terrifying, after all, can the beautiful Lady Gaga and her throng of male models be? When American Horror Story has managed to combine their gore and shock with a more unsettling, tinted approach to dabbling into the unknown, it will leave the ranks of a “really fun horror show,” and enter the realm of sublime supernatural brilliance.