Horror stories are made to engage your whole body. They make the hairs on the back of your neck perk up. They force you to wince or close your eyes. They trigger grimaces and gags.
FX's American Horror Story might make you laugh ... and cry, vomit, twitch and run maniacally from the living room.
The show's title is about two-thirds right. American Horror Story is American. And it is horror-ble. But the story part? Well, let's just say that any sort of understandable plot or narrative is now lying in state and unlikely to haunt this series anytime soon.
The rest of the dead—that's another matter.
FX's wacky freak-out show retains the same vibe and some of its players from season to season, but everything else changes. From a family dealing with a house full of ghosts to a coven of New Orleans witches grasping for power, each season has its own nightmares. In Season Four (subtitled Freak Show), we're taken to a struggling carnival filled with oddments: psychopathic performers, a hermaphrodite with three breasts, and a woman with two heads who demonstrates a shockingly disturbing case of sibling rivalry. Lurking outside is the most unfunny clown ever. It's perhaps the darkest, craziest, most salacious chapter yet, something co-creator Ryan Murphy seems proud of.
"There's a reason for where that phrase comes from, 'Get your freak on,'" he tells Entertainment Weekly. "I love juxtaposing the freethinking, non-judgmental carnie folks with the Mamie Eisenhower housewives. The carny folk got it right in many ways. It is sexier this year and more graphic sexually than any of the seasons."
While often hailed by critics and perennially nominated for Emmys, American Horror Story is flat-out, over-the-top, take-no-prisoners weird—perfect fodder for the snarky riff-meisters on the dearly departed Mystery Science Theater 3000. Or it would be if Tom Servo and Crow could manage to crack jokes between the gasps of horror and disgust they'd surely utter. There's more sex and gore per scene here than you'll see this side of, well, pert near anything—on TV or at the movies.
Slate's Troy Patterson calls the show "deliberately unhinged" and "a showcase for scenery chewing and giddy blasphemy, an exploitation chamber piece." Had Edgar Allan Poe seen the script for just one of these episodes, he would've laughed himself silly ... then buried the whole mess under the floorboards while glancing furtively over his shoulder. Not that we'd expect much sanity from Murphy, the mind behind the despicably gregarious Nip/Tuck and the creator of Fox's very different but still implausible and rampantly problematic Glee.
When interviewed for New York magazine, Murphy defended his nightmare by saying the show's spooky-sexual ethos was cribbed from Dark Shadows, ABC's supernatural daytime soap from the 1970s.
"My grandmother used to force me to watch Dark Shadows," he said. "Even when I was sobbing, she made me watch, to toughen me up."
Now Murphy's grandmother's lack of entertainment discernment has come back to haunt us all. Where was Plugged In in 1971 anyway?
"There is nothing—repeat, nothing—subtle about this series," writes salon.com's Matt Zoller Seitz. "It's a jumble of pathology and mayhem—horror for the YouTube generation. ... If it were possible to take a classic early '60s camp horror movie, feed it massive amounts of cocaine, then turn it into a basic cable drama, the result might look like this."
It's a slow episode that doesn't feature some sort of murder, mutilation or scene of torture before every commercial break, most featuring R-level blood and gore. And when the violence wanes, it's often replaced with sexual deviancy and enough anti-religious, often blasphemous messages to make marble statues openly weep.
Morality? That's about the only thing truly dead and buried in American Horror Story.
"Massacres and Matinees"
With the town of Jupiter, Fla., on high alert after the murder of four people, the workers at Elsa Mars' freak show fall under suspicion. Meanwhile, Twisty the Clown has killed two more and taken on an apprentice. The head of Twisty's latest victim is found sitting on a toy store shelf as a wind-up robot tracks blood across the floor. A clerk is stabbed through the throat. A teen girl and a little boy are held captive. (She tries to escape by smashing a nail-filled board into Twisty's neck.) We also see a guy get his neck snapped while he's having sex with a hermaphrodite. A carny bites the head off a baby chick. A guy threatens to break an infant's neck. We see and hear about severe, body-mangling beatings. People dig up a grave and take out dismembered body parts.
In the stop-animation opening, two-headed grotesqueries kiss, skeletons fondle each other and a naked figure has a third leg. Desiree Dupree takes off her coat to reveal three breasts (her nipples covered with tassels) and brags about her male and female sexual organs. There's explicit talk about doing tricks on stage with one's private parts. Two gay men drink whiskey outside a tent while a third tries to "cure" himself of his sexual tendencies by doing the deed with Desiree. (We see movement and hear graphic sexual talk.) There are rumors of rape and abuse.
Drinking, smoking and foul language (two s-words, "a--," "b--tard," "d--n" and "h---") are commonplace. God's and Jesus' names are abused.
Mrs. Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies accepts a new fledgling witch into its fading order: Zoe, whose "talent" is the ability to kill a man by having sex with him. (We observe that she discovered this ability while sleeping with her boyfriend for the first time; blood seeps from his nose and eyes.) Another witch in training proves she's a human voodoo doll by sticking her arm with a fork—which causes bloody wounds to appear on somebody else's arm. Then she holds a knife to her own neck.
One witch is drugged and gang raped (a sickening sequence that's graphically rendered onscreen). Most of the culprits are then killed when the witch causes their bus to flip. A woman sits in the shower, naked and crying. We see sex scenes with explicit movement and groaning—and sometimes a bloody climax. A witch manually stimulates a comatose man.
These witches aren't solely naturalistic, as they do seem to play at the "dark arts," as Harry Potter would call it; we see some pretty intense occult-themed cermeonies, curses and spells. A woman is burned alive by snake-handling Christians. Another is buried alive—and survives in the tomb for 170 years or so. In flashback, we see slaves being tortured. A pancreas is removed from a still-living victim. Others have their eyes and mouths stitched shut after feces are inserted. A face is flayed off.
Nine or 10 unbleeped s-words and lots of other profanities cloud the polluted air even further, including "h‑‑‑," "b‑‑tard," "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch" and "p‑‑‑." Crude references are made to sexual body parts. God's and Jesus' names are abused. Characters smoke and drink.
"Welcome to Briarcliff"
Newlyweds step into the asylum as part of their "haunted honeymoon tour." Sex on an examination/torture table involves him undressing her and lots of sexual movements and sounds. A few minutes later, as she's performing oral sex on him, he reaches his arm through a door—where it's promptly yanked off. (We see the bloody, bleeding stump and appendage.)
Another man and woman also have heated sex. They disrobe, kiss and moan. We see her bare back and the side of her breast. We see another man's bare bum. And a nun exposes her backside for "punishment" at the hands of head nun Sister Jude. Sister Jude, meanwhile, fantasizes about having sex with the asylum's monsignor, visually imagining herself taking off her habit (revealing a red negligee) and straddling the priest. A patient throws semen on a nun, and we later see him working his hand wildly in his pants.
A reporter snuggles with and professes her affection for her lesbian lover. Sister Jude later captures the reporter and blackmails her lover to remand the woman into the asylum's care—ostensibly to force a change in her sexual orientation. It's no surprise, then, that in general organized religion is portrayed as corrupt, clueless and terrible.
The opening sequence features disconnected scenes of blood and gore, as well as a nun threatening a helpless patient. A man holding a bloody weapon wears what appears to be a mask of human skin. Another man apparently has his eye punctured by a needle, his anus probed and a chip inserted into, then (bloodily) removed from his neck. Brains float in jars. Gruesome stories are told about what killers did to their victims.
Characters smoke, drink wine and say the s-word (once), "p‑‑‑y" (once), "pr‑‑k," "b‑‑ch" and "a‑‑." God's and Jesus' name are abused.
After learning that Violet's been skipping school, Ben makes her promise to return. Instead, she spends the day with boyfriend Tate, which culminates in Tate asking Violet to commit suicide with him. Violet runs downstairs to wake up Ben, but finds that he's been knocked unconscious (by Tate, as the Rubber Man). She then discovers that she can't leave the house. Why? Well, 'cause she's already dead, that's why. Tate shows her her own corpse, with flies filling the gaping mouth. (We see a flashback to her suicide.)
In flashback we see Tate set his father-in-law, Larry, on fire. (He survives but is horribly disfigured.) We also see neighbor Constance shoot her cheating husband and housemaid. (Blood spatters the wall, and the housemaid's face is mangled.) Constance then grinds up her husband and feeds him to the dogs. Larry sees his dead daughters and speaks with his dead wife, who immolated themselves when they learned he was having an affair. (They're covered with horrific burns.)
Tate kills an exterminator and fights with Ben. Constance threatens to cut off Larry's privates, brandishing a knife near his groin. A newly dead murder victim (we hear he was cut in half and see horrific scars on his face in photos) seems thrilled at his posthumous notoriety. A mocking prayer is offered up. As are three s-words along with "a‑‑," "p‑‑‑ed," "h‑‑‑" and "b‑‑ch." God's name is misused about 10 times.