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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.
FX’s long-running American Horror Story is cut from an even darker, crazier cloth than the more run-of-the-mill variety. Why, it might make you laugh, cry, vomit, twitch, scratch your head in confusion and run maniacally from the living room—all in the space of 90 seconds.
The show’s title is about two-thirds right. American Horror Story is American. And it is horror(ible). But the story part? Well, sometimes, that can be a bit … lacking.
FX’s wacky freak-out show is a different beast than most long-running series. While it retains the same vibe and some of its players from season to season (and takes place in the same shared universe), 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 brings its own nightmares.
While Season Eight took us forward to an apocalyptic future, Season Nine takes us all the way back to… 1984: the height of big hair, leg warmers, the Jane Fonda aerobics craze and summer-camp horror films.
Salon.com’s Matt Zoller Seitz writes, “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.” Well, perhaps the execs at FX heard him, because that’s exactly what American Horror Story:1984 is all about.
After surviving an attack by the so-called Night Stalker (a narrative element based on real-life serial killer Richard Ramirez, who prowled and terrorized the streets of L.A. in 1984), new-in-town Brooke runs away with her friends to Camp Redwood to be a counselor for the summer. Of course, it isn’t until after they arrive that they discover Redwood was the site of “the worst summer camp massacre of all time” 14 years before. Moreover, the new owner of the camp, a woman named Margaret, was the only survivor of that carnage.
Margaret claims that Jesus saved her life and helped her to stay silent and motionless as the killer cut off her ear and added it to his necklace of “trophies.” Her purpose in reopening the camp was to take all of her horrible memories and turn them into something happy, to create a safe and wholesome place for children to spend their summers.
Incidentally, the man who caused her so much pain and strife is located just a short drive away at a local mental hospital. Mr. Jingles, as he was called, is incarcerated. It’s no shock to anyone when he predictably escapes after discovering that he failed to kill Margaret. Now, he wants to finish the job, and he immediately gets to work terrorizing the new counselors.
The series has been hailed by critics and frequently nominated for Emmys. But make no mistake: American Horror Story is flat-out, over-the-top, take-no-prisoners weird—perfect fodder for the snarky riff-meisters on 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.
Each episode overflows with more sex and gore than you’re likely to see anywhere else on basic cable. Slate’s Troy Patterson once called 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.
When interviewed for New York magazine when the show was still relatively new, creator Ryan 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?
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.
Wanting to escape L.A., Summer Olympics hype and the serial killer known as the Night Stalker, five friends—Brooke, Montana, Chet, Ray and Xavier—volunteer as camp counselors for the summer. Little do they know that Camp Redwood was the site of a massacre 14 years earlier. And now, the original culprit has returned to pick up where he left off.
Two young women and a young man kiss each other and remove their clothes while hiding behind sheets in their cabin (we see the bras of both women). The man pulls out a condom, indicating his intent. However, they are interrupted when Mr. Jingles, a serial killer, stabs one of the women and the man through the mouths as they kiss. The second woman falls out of bed and is subsequently stabbed through the eye before she can scream for help. Mr. Jingles piles the bodies up and cuts off his victims’ ears, adding them to his ghastly necklace. As the camera pans out, we see that the murderer also killed the other seven other women sleeping in the cabin, taking their ears as well.
A woman ogles a man wearing exceedingly tight shorts that leave nothing to the imagination. Later, the man finds her in the lake with her clothing abandoned on the dock (he holds up her panties). He removes his own clothing and jumps in with her, where we briefly see his naked backside. An underwater sex act is implied, but it’s interrupted when a car’s headlights shine on the woman.
A man hangs himself in his cell, and the orderly who finds him mocks him. But it turns out the hanging man was faking his death, and he strangles the orderly with such strength that the orderly’s bones crack and blood pours from his eyes. A mechanic is crushed by a vehicle when the car jacks are removed. The man who removed the jacks then crushes the mechanic’s head with his foot. A hiker gets hit by a car and survives, but later it’s revealed that his ear has been cut off. Brooke later finds him hanging on the back of a door with his throat slit.
A man with a pentagram tattoo on his hand attempts to burgle a young woman in her home. He throws her around roughly, demanding that she give him her money and jewelry before she grabs a frying pan and beats him with it. He leaves when the neighbor calls the police, but he claims that Satan will help him find her again later.
Vulgar references are made to the male anatomy and sex, and more than once women are seen checking men out. A seemingly straight woman flirts with another woman, making the second woman uncomfortable with her sensually suggestive behavior. We hear a verbal reference to masturbation. A woman squeezes her own backside suggestively.
Several young men lift or completely remove their shirts to show off their abdominal muscles. We see two women from the shoulders up in gym showers and later in towels. Men and women wear typical ’80s attire, including leotards over tights, short shorts and crop tops. Margaret, the camp owner, strictly prohibits drugs, alcohol and especially sex: “Girls are red. Boys are blue. Don’t even try to make purple.” A woman is teased for being “the last American virgin.”
Characters drink alcohol from bottles and flasks. Several people smoke cigarettes. Weed is smoked (including via a bong), and cocaine is used. Chet was kicked out of the Olympics because they found drugs in his system. He claims to be innocent, but decides that since he can’t compete, he might as well do drugs with his friends. Someone is accused of “‘roid rage.”
The f-word and s-word are both heard frequently, as well as “b–ch,” “a–,” “h—,” and “d–k.” Jesus’ name is misused at least three times, and God’s is misused another three (once paired with “d–n”).
Nuclear war breaks out, but a few fortunate souls are rescued from the apocalypse and are shuttled to a massive underground refuge strictly regulated by class. Those clad in purple are the elites. Those wearing gray are society’s new drones.
“Technology is what destroyed the world,” says the outpost’s headmistress Wilhemina Venable. “Social media gave people the illusion that they were equal. But that’s all been swept away. The natural order will restore itself.”
Order is indeed the word of the day here. Two newcomers, Kyle and Emily, see two others executed outside the outpost’s perimeters—folks who engaged in “unauthorized copulation.” (We see blood spray, as well as bloody marks on the corpses’ foreheads afterward.) Two men are forcibly scrubbed down, unclothed, after a Giger counter detects excessive radiation on them—indicating they went outside without permission. (We see their full nakedness from the rear at several junctures.) One of those men is shot in the head, too, and later it’s suggested he’s subsequently served for dinner. (Guests become suspicious when they fish small bones and teeth out of the stew they’re served, and one vomits the meal out.) We learn later that the unfortunate man was framed—killed for no real reason. “Strangely satisfying, isn’t it?” Ms. Venable says. “I’m not embarrassed to say it gives me a tingle.”
The man killed was the homosexual partner of another outpost resident. (We see them cuddle on the couch.) Kyle and Ashley don’t have sex, but they kiss. (They’re allowed one smooch per day.) Pre-apocalypse, a woman leaves her husband behind to get to the refuge on time. (She contractually frees him from his “monogamous obligations” as she goes: “You’re now free to see other people!” she tells him.) A woman makes a quip about sleeping with Yul Brynner. Venable and her assistant, Miriam Mead, are apparently lovers, though we don’t see any intimate contact between the two.
Kyle steps out of the shower (we see him from the waist up) and sees a “666” scrawled in condensation on the shower glass. Someone calls the music during pre-meal cocktails—the same music every night—”Satan’s Spotify playlist.” Devilish imagery fills the opening credits, suggesting darker spiritual things to come.
A man jumps from a building and hits a car windshield—opting for suicide over the nuclear horrors to come—leaving a bloody mark on the glass. Several other people are shot and killed, and one man is apparently beaten to death. Two horses are shot. We hear references to stacks of bodies in the wasteland, as well as “canker pus monsters beyond the gates.”
Characters drink champagne. We hear them say the f-word nine times and the s-word about eight. “B–ch” and “h—” are also uttered. God’s name is misused at least seven times, once with “d–n,” and Jesus’ name is abused once.
The 2016 election disappoints married lesbian couple Ally and Ivy. Ally is horrified by the results, which launch a bevy of long-suppressed anxieties and phobias in her. Meanwhile, the blue-haired psychopath, Kai, sees the election as a welcome sign that terror is ascendant.
Two people get killed in the episode—a city councilman (who humiliated Kai in a meeting) and his wife. We see several assailants, all of whom wear clown masks, slash open the councilman’s throat and stab him several times as his wife, her mouth covered with duct tape, watches. Body bags are eventually wheeled out of the crime scene. (Later, some people say that the clown part of the killing was a child’s fantasy, and that the deaths actually appeared to be a murder-suicide.)
Meanwhile, Oz, the son of Ally and Ivy, reads a comic book about Twisty the Clown (a character in a previous AHS season), who kills two young lovers. We see the scene in live-action: a man and woman kiss frantically. Her underwear gets removed. The couple’s encounter suggests oral sex is about to occur when the clown comes up from behind and slits the man’s throat, then stabs him repeatedly in the chest. (Blood continues to spurt from the man’s neck as he expires.) The woman—in a bra and skirt—runs, but she’s later dispatched offscreen, and her heart appears to be thrown to the ground.
Ally sees masked clowns having sex in a supermarket. (Nothing critical is shown.) Later, she apparently hallucinates, seeing one masturbating in her and Ivy’s place of work. (We see telltale movements.) Ally and Ivy kiss tenderly. When Ally finds Oz hiding the violent comic book, she forces him to hand it over to her, thinking it’s pornography. “A picture of a bare breast or an erect penis never hurt anyone,” she says by way of reassurance. Winter, Oz’s nanny, quizzes Oz about who his “real” mother is, as well as who his father might be. She also confides her deepest secrets to Kai, including a story about when she had painful anal sex and wrote a love letter to Paula Abdul. In the aftermath of the election, Winter frets, “What if I get pregnant tonight? Where will I get an abortion?”
Kai fills a condom with urine, then throws it at a gathering of Spanish-speaking friends. The friends run over and beat Kai up—a confrontation Kai was anticipating. Someone records the assault on a phone. Winter forces Oz to watch real murders on a dark corner of the Internet. He doesn’t want to, but she insists: “This is like a vaccination,” she says, “for your brain.” Clowns terrorize Ally in a supermarket, one bearing a knife. A clown mask features an exposed brain. A bit of food apparently oozes blood. Ally and others drink wine, and Ally is given a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication (which she at first refuses to take).
Characters use the f-word five times (unbleeped in an episode purchased online), the s-word six times and other curses, including “a–” and “b–ch.” God’s name is misused seven times, while Jesus’ name is abused twice.
Matt and Shelby fret over the fact that their niece is now in the clutches of centuries-old ghosts. Worse yet, they learn from the property’s mysterious previous owner, Elias, that all the spirits that haunt the Roanoke property will, for six days, be able not just to scare, but to kill.
Shortly thereafter, Elias is killed himself by a barrage of arrows. And that’s just the beginning. In flashbacks, we see a woman who has her arms literally pulled off her torso (blood squirts from the wounds), while her lady friend is beheaded (audiences do not see the lethal blow). Another man is chopped in his midsection. The killer—a woman from the original Roanoke colony called The Butcher—pushes the cleaver into the screaming man’s gut. We then watch as his intestines are pulled out. A pig-man gets hacked in the back with an ax, but it doesn’t kill him. In a flashback, we presumably see that same man, draped in the head of a pig, being burned alive as a sacrifice. Scores of people die gruesomely. The ghosts of three fairly modern hunters, who supposedly turned their guns on each other, return—chunks of their heads blown off. Someone’s stabbed in the neck.
We see flashbacks to when The Butcher led the colony and turned it (with the help of a shadowy witch named Scathach) to a dark, old religion. She sacrifices a child, braining the girl with a rock (we don’t see the blow). Her son protests, entreating the colony to return to Christianity. The Butcher pretends to repent, offering fruit to the colonists as a way to seal the deal. They take her at her word: “The Lord preaches forgiveness for those who repent their sins,” the son says, and they all bite the fruit—which is poisonous, of course. While the colonists gag and vomit, the Butcher murders them all. “If thou does not wish to follow me in this life, thou shalt follow me in the next!” she says. “Tether us to these grounds forever!” And with that, she opens her own shirt so Scathach can slash the Butcher’s own throat.
Matt is seduced (magically, he suggests) by Scathach. We see the two kiss and mostly disrobe. Though we don’t see anything critical, we do see her thighs wrapped around his middle and some passionate movement. “It’s the most intimate connection I had ever experienced,” he later tells the documentary crew. A man seems to flirt with his handsome, male Uber driver. In another flashback, we see a Korean family watch The Partridge Family on TV and fret about whether the family matriarch is divorced. “Americans like to get divorced,” the mother laments. “Her husband is dead,” the daughter says. “Better,” says the mother. They also pray to their ancestors for protection.
People drink whiskey. Profanities include “a–” and “b–ch” (both used once), as well as “h—” (four times) and four misuses of God’s name (twice with the word “d–n”).
The hotel’s builder and resident serial killer says religion is the “worst thing in the world,” going so far as claiming he’d kill God Himself. Some of his victims are laid out to look like the Roman numeral IV—apparently as a statement about the fourth commandment. We see him slash a woman to death as he has sex with her. Another couple has also been killed while copulating.
Incomprehensibly, those wrecking-ball sized blasts of sexualized violence register as barely blips in a show like this. What surrounds them are a multitude of scenes laden with explicit nudity, sex, fetishes, vampirism, mutilation, murder, blatantly necrophilic activities and graphic self-harm, the mere description of which here would render this review unreadable—certainly nightmare-inducing. (Any single scene would automatically trigger an R rating in a movie. The combined weight of them might actually push a project over into NC-17 territory.)
Alcohol gets screen time, as does alcoholism. We hear about and see the drug-addled habits of junkies. People smoke cigarettes. They say the s-word seven or eight times, along with curses such as “a–,” “b–ch” and “h—.” God’s name is misused, once with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused a half-dozen times.
“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.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.
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