This review contains spoilers.
The scary child trope is one of the oldest horror staples I can think of. If kids aren’t being scary, then they’re in peril. For whatever reason, it’s basically evergreen, and no matter how much you see a young child sitting in a closet under the stairs talking to a ghost, it retains some kind of weird power to make skin crawl. Especially if it’s a really cute kid, like Lee’s daughter Flora. The cuter the child, the more scary it is when the child says something like “They’re going to kill us all and save me for last.”
Chapter 2 of the Roanoke saga combines a couple of different plots. The continued haunting of Matt and Shelby now shares time with more mundane drama: Lee and her ex-husband Mason’s custody disputes over their daughter Flora. Mentioned in the first episode, Flora herself appears this week because what good is a haunted house without a child or two to menace? Lee brings her daughter in for a weekend visitation, but after Flora gets involved in some creepy conversations with a girl named Priscilla who wears a funny hat, it’s pretty clear that “Take Your Daughter to the Haunted Murder House Day” isn’t going to replace “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” any time soon on the calendar, and for good reason.
If a creepy child isn’t enough, there’s also Denis O’Hare living in a dirt cellar with a camcorder ranting about murderous nurses and the even more murderous evil spirits that haunt the big white farmhouse Shelby and Matt have sunk their life savings into. As it turns out, being a homeowner isn’t murder, it’s “MURDE”, with the last R missing, courtesy of the two scary nurses we saw briefly last week, but are fully introduced to this week. Much like how Murder House used to be an abortion clinic, Ghost House used to be a nursing home for unwanted elderly, the sort who wouldn’t be miss if, say, they were killed by a pair of monsters named Miranda (Maya Berko) and Bridget (Kristen Rakes), who kill an old lady for the M in her name and cackle like super villains when they’re not terrorizing Matt and Lee simply by appearing randomly around them.
Also much like Murder House, there was a scary pig-man who was A) burned alive on a spit by Kathy Bates and Lady Gaga and B) returned to be a potent jump-scare later in the episode. He also, maybe, went around nailing severed pig tails to the wall—and to various trees—like grotesque porcine Easter eggs, just waiting to be stumbled across by someone staggering and yelping through a hazy dream state. The pig tails are nice window dressing for the opening horror show, a nice little glimpse in the forest as Shelby and Matt run past them looking for Flora, and a great jump scare for Lee as she wanders around drunk.
However, for all Kathy Bates giving speeches and people screaming in fright, my favourite moments remain the little tics that American Horror Story has picked up from all the other re-enactor horror shows on basic cable. For example, Flora playing with a toy only to hear the tell-tale stock library giggle of a child is something I’ve seen dozens of times, and it’s great to see it once again in this environment. The horrified reaction shots of Shelby and Matt? Another TV staple for shows whose special effects budget is minimal, because seeing horror reflected on the face of an actor is a good stand-in for showing the audience something horrifying (though American Horror Story also shows us the horrifying thing).
I’m not terribly interested in Lee’s story; I can understand why Tim Minear has been tasked with talking about that, because it establishes her as another unreliable narrator alongside her brother Matt, who mentions his head injury as a possible explanation for his visions, save those shared with Shelby. Of course, we know she’s kind of an unreliable narrator, because we’ve seen her drinking habits. It’s nice to muddy the waters a little, but I’m a little ready to get to the ghosts and the killing.
The creepy moments are very enjoyable—Dr. Elias Cunningham (O’Hare) has a really good video diary that efficiently evokes Blair Witch yet again with a little added Ring flavour—and Michael Goi keeps the episode moving swiftly. The jump scares are effective, and the use of the little girl in peril provides a few great images, particularly that of a yellow hoodie hanging up at the top of a gigantic tree. The domestic drama doesn’t overstay its welcome, either, and there’s enough interesting visual stuff going on with the spectral child to hold attention.
This is the second week in a row the end of the episode caught me by surprise, and once the ghost stuff started to really kick in, I wanted the episode to continue. Sadly, this isn’t Netflix, so gratification must be delayed.
Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, here.