What is an “American” Horror Story?

I’m getting wrapped up in American Horror Story, which is four episodes into its first television season—and not only because I’m trying to figure out if some characters are ghosts, flesh-and-blood individuals, or imaginary projections visible to certain people.

As someone who studies stories, I’m interested in what the show presents as an American horror story. What is the basic plot structure of a horror story that is recognizably “American”? What kinds of characters enact these events, and in what kind of landscape or setting does everything typically take place?

CC-licensed photo by flickr user Teo

These questions get at the concepts of “genre” and “convention.” Genre is a type of story while conventions are details that distinguish categories of stories from one another. The post-apocalyptic story (think Zombieland or Cormac McCarthy’s bestseller The Road) usually begins with an event that fundamentally alters the world’s social, political, and geographic landscape. Only a few survive, and those that do embark on a journey to find other survivors with whom they might rebuild society.

Although generic criticism is a little passé in the literary world, I still like to think about the ways stories conform to and deviate from generic conventions. Considering how a story follows generic expectations can tell us about prevailing cultural beliefs. On the other hand, analyzing the ways that a story revises or ignores generic conventions illuminates how  cultural beliefs are changing (or are being transformed).

In considering how American Horror Story reflects and revises the oft-told “haunted house” story, we can identify American fears and anxieties that aren’t directly associated with things that go bump in the night.

The first four episodes of the show set up the prototypical American horror story as being linked to economic and familial prosperity, on the one hand, and home-ownership and mobility, on the other. American Horror Story, then, is not so much a television show about a haunted house; rather, it identifies the terror of living in an economically precarious time during which the home neither provides emotional comfort nor contributes to a family’s wealth or prosperity

Read more about why American Horror Story is a product of economic meltdowns past and present, and tell me if you agree.

In American Horror Story, the home in question is–and has been–a trap. It has prevented many of its owners from appropriately dealing with family crises, many of which have arisen because of wider economic forces. Ultimately, then, the show frames the “American” horror story as a tale about the loss of mobility and personal agency. Economically, socially, and psychologically, we are stuck in place, and try as we might, we don’t have much power to change our circumstances. So much for the American “boot straps” mentality.

For those who haven’t been watching, American Horror Story focuses on the Harmons, a family of three who moved from Boston to Los Angeles. They buy and live in a 1920s, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired mansion, which has been plagued by a series of tragedies, misadventures, and crimes, including the supposed murder-suicide of the previous occupants (Chad and Patrick, a married couple played by Zachary Quinto and Teddy Sears in episode four).  (I don’t think it’s an accident that many aspects of the show evoke Frank Lloyd Wright, as his family endured a significant tragedy on the grounds of a house he designed.)

As the series progresses, viewers learn that the house’s sinister happenings go much deeper than what was initially revealed to them by the realtor: beginning with the first occupant who commissioned the house for his wife, each inhabitant has met an untimely end at the house, and after their demise, nearly all return to the house as ghosts. In fact, many of the ghosts are trapped in the house, and perhaps that’s because they only can exist within the space of the residence, save on Halloween, when they can walk freely in the community.

CC-licensed photo of the Meyer May Living Room (1908) by flickr user ChicagoGeek

But long before the house’s many residents died (or were killed) and returned as ghostly prisoners, they were strongly tied to the house in other ways, and this bond was largely—but not solely—economic in nature. Consider the most recent owners who lived there immediately before the Harmon family. At the outset of episode four, we learn that Chad and Patrick are hardly in an ideal relationship, as each in his own way feels unfulfilled sexually and emotionally. (One wants better sex while the other wants children and a more emotionally-present partner.) Adding to their troubles is the fact that they’ve sunk a great deal of money into a home that they planned to “flip” but now have little hope of selling—much less for a profit—due to the burgeoning 2007 economic nosedive. The house, then, becomes both an albatross around their collective necks as well as their ticket to a better life somewhere else—if they only could cash in.

Chad and Patrick’s situation is reproduced within Vivien and Ben Harmon, the home’s subsequent owners. They, too, are a struggling couple, and they’re dealing with Ben’s sexual indiscretion and a miscarriage. These troubles are made worse by Ben’s revelation that the family has no liquid assets; their money is tied up in the house, and even though a brief reprieve in the economic downturn likely enabled them to relocate to LA, a second dip in the economy means they are stuck in their new city and in a living situation that they don’t fully want.

American Horror Story contains some typical elements of the haunted house story in that the home is not only a site on which evil is perpetrated; it becomes an entity that has a life of its own, and it actively conjures violence. In American Horror Story, the house in question does violence to the family unit, particularly in terms of its ability be a cohesive, sustainable unit that produces (1) offspring, and (2) money that presumably would allow the family  to live anywhere if they should so choose.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user merfam

American Horror Story picks up on the very real horror of what happens to a family during an economic downturn. By portraying the family home as haunted (and a ghost-prison, at that), the show demonstrates how the domestic space becomes a powerful, physical reminder of that violence.

This “horror story” is not new (just watch Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, as my American Studies students recently did). However, as noted in a Wall Street Journal article, it has profoundly shaped contemporary American life.  While “about 37.1 million people moved [in 2009], compared with 35.2 million in 2008,” recent “data showed [that] the increase…was almost entirely the result of a rise in intra-county migrations,” and this “is likely a reflection of the millions of people who moved in with family or to a nearby rental property after losing their homes to foreclosure.”

If you watch American Horror Story, how do you see it participating (or not) in the horror story genre, particularly the “haunted house” tale?

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Posted in Cultural Phenomena, Fiction, General literature, Visual Media
One comment on “What is an “American” Horror Story?
  1. […] by the show’s title, I wanted to know what qualified the show’s horror story as “American” in character. I surmised that American Horror Story is less a the tale of things that go bump in the night and […]

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Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

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