As a horror fan, I’ve learned to live with subpar quality. For every You’re Next, there’s three Purge movies, four Paranormal Activity sequels and a half dozen terrible found footage movies. There’s a lot of bad you have to sort through to find the good, and a lot of concessions you have to be willing to make. I can forgive a bad performance when there’s a good scare, or focus on good monster design or gore when other aspects of the movie are lacking. It’s not that my standards are lower or that I’m going to give bad movies a pass, it’s that I’m willing to give the bad a try to see if there is something worthy there after all. That brings me to season six of American Horror Story.
American Horror Story is the brainchild of Glee’s Ryan Murphy: an anthology series that tackles different scary stories and tropes each season. It’s the definition of “good concept, bad execution.” An all-star cast, which at times has included Zachary Quinto, Chloe Sevigny, Kathy Bates, Jessica Lange, Lady Gaga, Emma Roberts, Dennis O’Hare and Emmy winner Sarah Paulson, is transplanted into a bizarre, sprawling and often times confusing story, be it haunted houses, witches or spooky carnivals. There are interesting characters, shocking moments, excellent production design, great performances and clever ideas that are often placed in stories that frankly don’t work. Unnecessary plot twists and convoluted ideas overpower the show and fans usually note that at a certain point in every season, things really go off the rails. Aliens come to the insane asylum. A voodoo demon terrorizes the witches. I lose interest.
Season six has started with a great concept. The season’s theme was kept under wraps until the premiere when the phrase “My Roanoke Nightmare” splashed across the screen. The Roanoke colony was a settlement of pilgrims who completely disappeared without a trace in the woods of North Carolina. The only clue to their disappearance was the word “Croatoan” engraved into a fence. The colony was never found and remains a mystery to this day.
Roanoke starts in a fake documentary style. Actors Lily Rabe and André Holland speak to the camera, recounting a story from their past. In flashbacks, actors Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. portray the same characters, living through the events in real time.
Shelby and Matt Miller are a married couple from Los Angeles, California who decide to leave the city and relocate to a house in the North Carolina woods. The large, gorgeous old farmhouse is on the market for dirt cheap, and the couple happily purchases it out from under a family of hillbillies who claim the low value is because of the hurricanes. Shelby and Matt move in immediately.
Large house, suspiciously undervalued, hillbillies try to warn you off…. every viewer knows where this is going, even if ‘Horror’ wasn’t in the title. Shelby and Matt start to experience paranormal phenomena. One day, it rains teeth from the sky and another, there is a dead pig on their doorstep. Shelby sees twin girls, like a grown-up version of The Shining’s twins, walking around the house, and then is nearly drowned in their outdoor hot tub. Matt’s sister Lee (Angela Basset) comes to stay at the house with Shelby while Matt is away at work, and Matt sets up security cameras all over the property. Shelby and Lee see and hear things (a knife is moved around the kitchen, a wine bottle rolls into a room) and end up investigating the house’s basement. A TV is on, playing a home movie of a man in the woods and someone wearing a pig mask. While downstairs, they hear crashing and banging upstairs and Matt, two towns over, gets a notification from his security cameras. He sees people with torch lights entering the property, and quickly drives home to help protect his family. Lee and Shelby emerge from the basement and find the house has been covered in stick figures straight out of the Blair Witch Project.
Shelby is fed up with this creepy house and drives off alone into the night and almost crashed into an old lady on the road for no reason. Her car drives off the road and she’s lost in the woods, before stumbling onto a strange scene of people gathered in the woods – presumably, the people that have been attacking her home.
The episode ends there. It’s the most restrained premiere of American Horror Story possibly ever, with the big bad only hinted at, and the only characters introduced are (seemingly) normal. In other years, AHS has started off with a wacky bang – outrageous characters and in your face weirdness right out of the gate. It’s no coincidence that this is also perhaps the best intro to AHS in all six seasons. Roanoke is genuinely unsettling at times because of the tension, the atmosphere and the mystery, instead of relying on the outlandishly bizarre. This episode was more creepy and less campy, which is all but unheard of in Ryan Murphy’s world. The documentary style rankled a few feathers, but personally, I love the format. It feels like the old A&E specials like A Haunting in Connecticut, or the numerous true crime shows on TV these days. It’s a different avenue in horror that the show hasn’t used before and it opens doors to play around with memory, point of view and unreliable narrators. On a practical note, it also allows the show’s cast to stay large without overstuffing unnecessary characters: actors like Lily Rabe who was shoehorned into American Horror Story: Hotel with almost nothing to do get a larger, more vital role without taking the focus away from the main story.
The second episode starts right where the first left off, keeping with the documentary format. Shelby is in the woods, witnessing a cult-like pilgrim group led by Kathy Bates burning a man alive as a human sacrifice. Shelby runs through the woods again to escape them and ends up back on the road where Lee finds her. The police investigate but find nothing and think Shelby is crazy or hallucinating. Matt and Shelby’s roles are now flipped: he’s ready to leave but she wants to stay, thinking it’s just the hillbillies going to extreme lengths to scare them off. So the three of them stay. The next day, they find a grotesque sacrificial display: charred remains of a scarecrow-like figure, pig’s head atop and parts of meat dangling. This time, the police have to take their claims seriously, and an officer stays on the property to protect them.
The next night, Matt is awakened by a phone call and hears the faint sounds of an old woman asking for help. The phone is, of course, not plugged in. He walks through the house and finds two young nurses and a hospital bed with an old woman. The three all ignore him as he asks how they got in or what they’re doing there. The two nurses shoot the old woman dead and smear the letter M on the wall cackling “M is for Margaret!” Matt panics and calls the cop in from outside, who finds absolutely nothing. Lee and Shelby also saw and heard nothing, but Matt swears he wasn’t dreaming.
Lee invites her young daughter to come stay at the farmhouse. Lee’s ex-husband has primary custody of Flora after Lee suffered from substance abuse problems, so Flora will only be visiting for a few days. Lee’s desperation to spend time with her daughter overrides any common sense that might say “this crazy farmhouse has been broken into by either racist hillbillies or angry pig-man ghosts and is no place for a child.” Flora immediately finds an imaginary friend named Priscilla, who wants to make Flora a pilgrim bonnet like her own and wants help with “all the blood.” They still stay in the house. When Mason comes to pick Flora up, she’s hiding in a hidden crawlspace in the attic and says she was making a trade with Priscilla: her doll for her life. “They’re going to kill us all and save me for last.” Mason decides Flora will never come back to this house and wants to strip Lee of all visitation rights. Mason is the only character to react appropriately to any of this madness so far.
From the kitchen, Shelby sees a young girl dressed in colonial garb in the yard. She and Matt decide to investigate and find a cellar door that leads to a bunker-like space. There’s a video camera connected to a TV, and they press play.
The same man from the video Shelby and Lee found in the basement comes on the screen. It’s a Professor Cunningham, played brilliantly by veteran AHS actor Dennis O’Hare. He’s paranoid, jumpy and absolutely terrified. He tells the camera he’s been in the bunker for months because of the goings-on at the house. He was writing a true crime novel about a pair of sister nurses who murdered their patients and wrote their names on the wall to spell out murder but disappeared without a trace before they finished. They had been living in this house and he thinks something eviler than them came, the same thing that had been haunting him. In another Blair Witch style moment, Cunningham walks around with the camera on night vision until a someone jumps out at him from a mirror and the camera goes dead. Matt realizes the nurses he saw in his vision were the ones Cunningham described, and goes back to the house to rip down the wallpaper and reveal the bloody word MURDE.
Things go from bad to worse, Matt explains in his documentary voice over, when Lee shows back up with Flora. Lee had drunkenly discovered bloody body parts on the wall earlier, but that wasn’t enough to deter her from bringing her daughter back to the haunted farmhouse. She’s kidnapping, Matt explains, and this can only end badly. Shelby takes Flora to the next room and then gets a call from Mason, who she dissuades from calling the police. He comes to pick Flora up, but Flora is of course already gone. The front door is open and the three run out into the woods looking for the young girl and instead find her yellow sweater in a tree — hundreds of feet up.
The show is continuing to be more creepy than campy, although the way characters ignore all signs of danger to keep the story moving is at times frustrating, as much as it is a staple of the genre. Of course, it’s ridiculous that Shelby was so ready to go she got in a car and drove off, saw even worse stuff and then decided to stay. Of course, it makes no sense that they bought this remote home in the middle of the woods in the first place – is there even a town nearby? Shelby’s a yoga teacher, where is she going to work? But overthinking the plot gets in the way of the fun. If Shelby and Matt moved out and never looked back, we would never get the delightful spookiness of a bloody knife in the front door, or Flora’s sweater impossibly high.
The scene with Flora’s sweater in the tree stuck out to me. I’m a horror fan, and I’m obsessed with haunted forests, which means I have devoted hours of my life to the creepy Reddit threads about mysteries in National Parks. Some are true (the amount of people who go missing every year) and some are delightfully fiction (portals to another realm), but the missing remains of children found high in a tree was one that could be either. It could be an animal, carrying parts with it up the tree, or it could just be something that sounds supernatural and spooky. The fact that American Horror Story decided to dip into that well is exciting to me: there’s a lot of creepy, maybe-true things that happen in the woods that could be co-opted for Roanoke.
Another thing I’m really enjoying about this season is the video tapes. Not only are they great because of Dennis O’Hare, but it also allows them to play around with the found footage format. Many fans hoped the whole season would be found footage, but that can be grating in a two-hour movie, let alone 10 hours of television. Sporadic found footage tapes enhance the show and help add to the tension by breaking things up: there’s the documentary voice overs, the re-enactment of the main story, the occasional flashback and now the scary, shaky cam tapes. I would love if AHS borrowed from V/H/S and eventually they found more tapes from other people who had visited the woods or the house. An anthology within an anthology!
There’s so much that Roanoke can pull from. Found footage, creepy true stories, multiple scenarios from what really happened to the Roanoke people, their cult-like activities, ghosts, not knowing what’s real and what’s fake, planted stories or unreliable narrators (who said Cunningham was telling the truth?), fake outs (who says Matt and Shelby have to survive?), mythology (does the pig man have any meaning?). Overall, there’s a lot I’m excited about with Roanoke. It was an interesting premiere with a great premise and tonnes of a potential. I can’t wait to see how it all goes off the rails.