American Horror Story: How the Show Has Changed Since Murder House

With season nine on its way, Murder House remains the jewel in American Horror Story's blood-soaked crown. Here's why...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

American Horror Story: Murder House marked horror’s first foray into serialized television. While shows like The Twilight Zone and Freddy’s Nightmares gave their audiences fresh stories each week, and The X-Files and its ilk had followed a case-of-the-week format with little in the way of connective tissue between episodes and seasons, AHS was the first horror-centric show to take a long-form approach to storytelling.

The format wasn’t the only groundbreaking aspect of the show. Series co-creator Ryan Murphy crafted a truly unique signature style, lying somewhere in tone between The Shining and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with dashes of slasher and lashes of lipstick added to the mix: pulpy event TV with avant garde sensibilities.

Everything about American Horror Story, as it was then and as it is now, screams out Murphy: from the hip, slick, blood-soaked aesthetics; to the raison d’etre of doggedly exploring off-mainstream messages; to the wildly veering tone that spikes up and down like the reading on a heart patient’s EKG as they’re being shocked back to life while riding upside down on the world’s fastest rollercoaster. One minute there’s singing, the next there’s aliens, the next someone’s carotid artery’s being hacked open like a blood-filled garden hose. Even when it doesn’t all quite work – and occasionally it doesn’t – it’s always arresting and engaging: a feast for the eyes and the adrenal gland, if not always for the brain.

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The ingredients of that Murphy-written recipe were never in better proportion, and the end-result never more delicious, than in Murder House, the show’s maiden season. The season that set the standard back in 2011 is still the standard to beat.

That’s not to say that the subsequent seasons are bad. Far from it. Each new season arrives with the same level of excitement and palpable anxiety as receiving a Secret Santa from a particularly wicked – and possibly certifiably insane – friend. What’s going to be inside this time? A chocolate foot? An actual human foot? It’s just that, as welcome a feature on the TV landscape as the show undoubtedly remains, AHS has never quite managed to best itself. Some seasons of the show have come close to it. Very close.

And others… Well. Others haven’t.

Seasons three to five form what can be charitably described as the show’s Wilderness Years. Here we have a smorgasbord of intriguing delicacies – some of them succulent, some of them putrid – in toto more like tapas at the Mad Hatter’s tea party than a satiating Sunday dinner. Each of them lacks a strong narrative structure and coherent thematic threads, without which grounding influences AHS descends into a series of visceral vignettes and mini-music videos crushed together into a discordant, multi-colored scream.

AHS: Coven, the witchy season, split the fans, with many unable to adjust to the show’s change of direction from a horror with occasional flashes of camp, to a swishy, slashy, flashy, sassy, tongue-in-cheek romp with occasional flashes of horror. Imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Mean Girls meets Mommie Dearest meets Return of the Living Dead, and then add a sprig of Texas Chainsaw Massacre for good measure.

Coven may be a bit of a fluff and a fumble overall, but it’s still tremendously fun to watch, with a typically terrific cast, bolstered by the addition of Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates as series regulars. The bonkers action includes sax-loving ghosts, disembodied racist zombie heads, voodoo magic, and Stevie Nicks playing herself as a witch. Admittedly, that all sounds great written down, but in execution – even with the crazy amped all the way up to 11 – Coven‘s battle between witches and warlocks, witches and witches, men and women, and mothers and daughters ultimately falls far short of the greatness exhibited by the show’s maiden and sophomore seasons. 

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AHS: Freak Show followed. It’s an almost unforgivable misfire of a season given that it embodies and reflects, perhaps like no other season except Asylum, the central themes of the series as a whole: alienation, the dangers of “othering,” and the struggles of the expelled and the disaffected. This season should have been a victory lap for AHS, the joining of all the dots – a dark and detailed exploration of the hopes, dreams, and despair of people pushed to the fringes of society, and society’s fascination with, and revulsion of, them in turn – but, alas, no. Freak Show is largely a dull, confused, and flabby affair that can’t even be rescued by the performances of Jessica Lange (her last outing as series lead) and Sarah Paulson (playing conjoined sisters Bette and Dot).

Frustratingly, though, despite being one of the weakest seasons to date, Freak Show gives the series its most chilling and compelling villain to date in the haunted and homicidal Twisty the Clown. It also delivers perhaps its single best episode (certainly its most touching), the Pepper-centric “Orphans,” a heart-breaking tale that brings Freak Show full circle with Asylum (it’s now taken for granted that the American Horror Story seasons and characters exist within the same universe and are all connected, but Freak Show was the first season to make it explicit).

AHS: Hotel, season five, is the true clunker of the bunch, an oil slick of thick, shiny sleekness beneath which is smothered all sense and substance. Wholly superficial, it has a hairdo where a heart should be. Nothing sums this up more than the casting of Lady Gaga in Jessica Lange’s stead, drawing an implicit comparison between the two that was never going to work in Gaga’s favor. Her central role made the season feel simultaneously flashier and flatter.

Everything about Hotel’s tawdry tale of vamps and vampires, lost souls and larcenists, druggies and drag-artists, blood-suckers and serial murders, shrieks shallowness, gloss and garishness is sort of outlandish. There are highlights, namely Evan Peters’ scenery-chewing turn as callous killer James March, and Denis O’Hare’s series’ best performance as the droll and soulful Liz Taylor, but ultimately, little of what happens in Hotel is memorable.

Things improved considerably with AHS: Roanoke, a season that marked something of a turning point for the franchise. Murphy and his team knew that if the show was to endure they would have to do more than simply serve up their usual broth of blood, gloss, frocks, and shocks (flavorsome though it was). Radical change was needed. A new direction, a fresh hook (several fresh hooks, in fact, ideally with screaming people attached to them). It was high time to take some fresh risks with the established format. Ergo, more new blood was injected into the cast, and the quest to substitute Lange was discontinued (you should never try to replace the irreplaceable: replace everything else instead).

Roanoke dials back on the color and the camp in favor of dark, drab, and dread. While the show revisits a haunted house setting, the action this time is framed by the devices of reality TV and the found-footage horror sub-genre. The meta, show-within-a-show-within-a-show schtick allows for heavy-handed satire, blood-curdling terror, some inventive and effective scares, and ink-black humor. Watching the “real” people who are the subjects of the show-within-a-show sharing screen (and scream) time with the “actors” who portrayed them in that show is a genuine joy. Roanake, while not troubling the top spot, is a broad success, even if Bates’ accent is… not.

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Season eight’s Apocalypse is ostensibly a sequel to both Coven and Murder House, and works precisely because it’s a craven act of nostalgia; a conscious attempt to recapture and rekindle some of the earlier seasons’ tone and zeitgeist. Apocalypse showcases the best of the series’ excesses, but tempers them with discipline to deliver an intriguing, coherent story with fun, blood, death, and delight by the world-ending megaton. It’s nice to see Lange again, too.

AHS: Cult is the real late-era gem, though. It’s also the franchise’s biggest risk to date, eschewing the supernatural in favor of chronicling the horror within the dark heart of man. Peters does terrific and chilling work this season as the unhinged and charismatic Kai Anderson. Part-slasher, part-excoriating topical satire, Cult takes shots at both left and right, man and woman, wolves and sheep, and with a deft hand shows how the damaged, disillusioned, and disenfranchised in society can be curdled by populist sentiment and emboldened by dangerous rhetoric. This season could just as comfortably have been subtitled AHS: Trump. It’s savage, uncompromising, and hits perhaps a little too close to home at times, but that’s what’s so great about it. A worthy entry to the series, and almost a contender for the best.

Not quite though. Most of the “best of” and “seasons ranked” lists littering the internet place either Murder House or Asylum at the top spot. Rightly so. Nine years and eight seasons later, they’re still the jewels in the blood-stained crown. The debate around which is better is similar to the one that still rages in Hellraiser fan circles between the purists, who favor the simple, self-contained structure of the first movie, and the vanguard for the avant garde, who favor the bolder, darker, and infinitely more bonkers setup of the second. Interestingly, and perhaps apropos of nothing, Hellraiser and Hellraiser II take place in a haunted house and an asylum respectively.

Like Hellraiser II, Asylum takes the format established by its forerunner and douses it in madness and mescaline, hurling psychotic Santas, serial killers, sadistic surgeons (another similarity between the two works), satanic sisters, anachronistic sing-songs, madmen, maniacs, and aliens into the canon. Just about everything that could possibly be imagined by God or man is brought to the screen in Asylum, including the kitchen sink – if by kitchen sink you mean Anne Frank, Nazis, ghosts, and men-beasts horribly disfigured by secret medical experiments. But do you know what? It works. There’s a coherence to it all, despite the veritable royal buffet of tropes, genres, and characters. There’s a tangible through-line, and a definite emotional arc, not to mention the series’ most sympathetic and relatable character to date, Paulson’s doggedly determined – and savagely unlucky – journalist, Lana Winters.

While Asylum and Murder House are almost equals in terms of innovation and quality, the trail-blazing progenitor pips it.

In accounting for Murder House’s supremacy, of course, you first have to adjust for novelty. After all, the TV landscape has changed a lot since the series debuted. These days anthology series abound, from Murphy’s own American Crime Story saga, to Fargo, to the unexpectedly beautiful and dream-like Haunting of Hill House, but in 2011 AHS was plowing virgin ground. Viewers at the time (myself included) didn’t realize they’d been watching an anthology series until after the end of the first season, which only served to magnify the intensity of the many shocks and twists along the way, especially the rolling death count that culminated in pretty much every character except next-door-neighbor Constance (Lange) being dead by the time the end credits rolled.

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No discussion of Murder House, or indeed AHS in general, can unfold without due tribute paid to Lange, the series’ lynchpin for the four seasons she starred in, and the long shadow cast across the four that followed. Lange is an incredible actor, elegant, vulnerable, layered, and commanding, a performer who oozes style, class, and charm. She steals every scene she’s in.

Everything about Lange radiates Old Hollywood; she has a grace and a presence that’s largely absent from the Tinsel Town of today, qualities which help her chime perfectly with AHS’ themes of a world decayed and forgotten, of people being ensared by circumstance, or washed away in the wake of seismic change. Lange is brilliant as Constance: funny, brutal, horrid, twisted, villainous, sympathetic, deeply human: her sadness and regret are palpable.

Of course there’s more to Murder House than just novelty and Lange. Among many other things it’s perfectly paced; by turns effectively creepy, sexy, and scary; packs so much in without ever feeling over-crowded; has a great cast; deals with controversial subjects (like suicide and school shootings) in a harrowing yet sensitive way; and has a neat and definite resolution.

It was the first of its kind, and it was the best of its kind.

AHS: 1984 has a lot to live up to. Let’s see if ninth time’s the charm.