No matter how many eight-legged teasers FX had crawling all over YouTube to mess with your head, Season 6 of American Horror Story has finally emerged from the shadows as a quasi-historical ghost story.
American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare takes the form of a docu-drama convincing enough to blur the line between nightmares and the nightly news. While AHS fans were able to unearth the theme from suspicious set photos that materialized on TMZ, from creepy colonial-era props to a tree trunk carved with the cryptic word CROATOAN, this was the one thing about Season 6 that Ryan Murphy was able to keep buried until the final seconds leading up to Chapter 1. The body count starts right now.
While the ripped-from-Cosmo backstory about traveling salesman Matt (Andre Holland) and yoga instructor Shelby’s (Lily Rabe) whirlwind romance can be saccharine at first, what they tell the camera soon takes a dark turn. Matt is soon attacked by a thug and ends up facedown and half-dead outside a movie theater whose headlining feature is (forebodingly enough) Crimson Harvest. Shelby miscarries from the shock. Played by Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. in the flashbacks, Matt and Shelby flee L.A. to escape the horror of his brush with the grim reaper—except what they don’t know is that they are running right into his bony embrace.
My Roanoke Nightmare takes us from Season 5’s swank hotel to a 1792 farmhouse covered in peeling paint and vintage toile wallpaper, its pièce de résistance a monstrous vertigo-inducing spiral staircase shrouded in cobwebs. The characters are always shining flashlights down murky corridors lined with sconces. Oozing through its cloudy windows is an ectoplasmic greenish-yellow light, which always makes it seem to be just on the edge of that time when unmentionable things start to creep around at night. High marks for the deliciously eerie ambience.
Maybe I’m just gullible when it comes to ghost stories, but what made me want to facepalm every other second of this episode is Matt’s stubborn refusal to believe the paranormal source of the incidents that scare the zen out of his yoga-loving wife. He brushes it off as twisted ZZ Top wannabes who were trying to drive the interracial couple out by playing bogeyman after nightfall. Racist acts of terror might explain the shredded garbage can outside the house, but not disembodied voices that sound like a chorus of Gollum and Freddie Krueger echoing through the hallways. Or something heavy enough to land Matt in the morgue instead of the hospital goes whizzing right over his head. Or human teeth rain that down like hail. Or the blood-soaked homage to Saw that is the pig carcass on the doorstep. Or the cobwebbed garlands of voodoo dolls that whisper a Wicker Man tribute all the way up that spooky staircase. It takes him that long to install security cameras.
The suspense of Season 6 does not disappoint. What start out as the type of slightly unnatural things that have you constantly looking over your shoulder just keep getting weirder and weirder. Suddenly you’re watching a video on an ancient TV screen in a basement that some invisible hand locked you in, and then you’ve got a demon hand without a face trying to drown you in the outdoor hot tub. You try to drive away just to crash into AHS alum Kathy Bates coming at you from the woods in 16th-century garb out of nowhere in the middle of the night. When you run after her you end up lost in a forest full of even more voodoo dolls, when you realize you’re being watched by fellow vintage-clad Wes Bentley as you’re being desperately reached for by some random guy with blood streaming down his face who looks like he’s just been scalped. The only spook missing is Lady Gaga.
Even creepier is that Season 6 is a phantom of something foretold by Season 1’s gimmicky press-on nails psychic. In an attempt to exorcise Murder House that works about as well as a cheap Ouija board, she shakily recalls the curse of the Ghost Colony, aka Roanoke. Mysteriously murdered colonists haunted and slaughtered the natives until their elder shaman cast a banishment spell to summon the ghosts by throwing their talismans into the fire. Guess what magic word was supposed to dissipate them forever: CROATOAN.
Now excuse me while I try to sleep without thinking every squirrel and raccoon scratching around is actually a demon in the basement.