The bloodcurdling anthology series “American Horror Story” is finally back on its feet. After a few years of backsliding in viewership, the show has returned to its original horror roots in its sixth season, opting for serious scares over shock value.
In 2011, the “American Horror Story’s”debut shattered conventional television norms. Its subject matter was dark and dangerous. Its characters were as well-developed as they were evil. Its cast was stacked with award-winning actors.
In its first season, each movement of the plot served the end of the show. Nothing was pure spectacle – the gore only raised the stakes of the psychological terror of its main characters, and, vicariously, the audience. While the series was often compared to the “Twilight Zone,” “American Horror Story” felt more like something Edgar Allan Poe would have enjoyed.
Though “American Horror Story” started out strong, by the time the series hit season five, the show was worn out. It had abandoned its storytelling for sake of shock to secure viewership, and fans soon tired of hackneyed horror tropes. Fortunately, season six is proving to be a success. It’s fresh. It’s new, and its format is revolutionary.
Leading up to its season premiere, “American Horror Story” season six was shrouded in secrecy. For the first time ever, show creator Ryan Murphy did not reveal the show’s theme.
Rather than revealing the concept for the season in months prior, Murphy designed a series of “misdirect” trailers — only one of Murphy’s 23 clips revealed the serie’s true theme. Fans were forced to speculate what kind of gruesome turns the show would take.
The season’s theme was finally — perhaps only partially — revealed when the show aired on FX. While the series is tied to the lost colony of Roanoke, there seems to be a lot more to the story than an abandoned New England settlement.
Season six is set in present day, and follows the story of a couple, Shelby and Matt, who decide to buy an abandoned farmhouse in the forests of South Carolina in the wake of personal tragedy.
While “the haunted house in the woods” concept seems cliché, it’s the way the story is told that makes it so captivating: season six is a show within a show.
Season six mimics the format of popular paranormal docudramas like “Celebrity Ghost Stories” and “A Haunting,” shows in which real people describe their accounts to a camera, and then their testimony is followed by dramatic reenactments.
The audience is introduced to two narrators: Shelby (Lily Rabe) and Matt (Andre Holland). They portray the “real” couple, and they describe their paranormal encounters to camera, while actors Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. reenact the events they describe.
For season six, the show’s iconic opening sequence is gone. In place of the show’s iconic opening sequence, the audience sees the title “My Roanoke Nightmare,” followed by the disclaimer: “This story is based on true events. Viewer discretion is advised.”
The documentary format is unexpected, and the layering of storytelling adds more depth. The narrators give a sense of reality to the show and act as foreshadowing devices. Yet there are larger questions at play when addressing their role.
There is no guarantee the narrators are reliable, and often Shelby and Matt have overlapping stories or contradict themselves entirely. Shelby has gone from wanting to fight to live in her farmhouse, to feeling trapped inside it.
Additionally, the bulk of the show is focused on the reenactments. Are these versions of the story reliable as well? Could it be possible that the show is totally staged, and the actual haunting takes place on the set of some reality TV show? In this season, viewers are never certain of what they are seeing.
Gooding and Paulson have hinted at a major plot twist midway through the season, and in a video interview with Entertainment Weekly, Murphy said, “Starting in episode six, the show has a huge turn, and the thing that you think you’re watching is not what you’re watching.”
Since Murphy has killed off his entire cast before, is it possible the real-life narrators are dead? Will there be a clip at the end of the series that reads, “Two weeks after taping, Shelby and Matt were found slaughtered in their apartment”?
Who knows? One thing’s for sure: major twists are heading our way, and no character is safe.