American Horror Story: Character and Setting

American Horror StoryFX’s award winning horror TV series, American Horror Story uses just about every familiar device of the horror genre, and yet the show has maintained complete originality for two seasons. The reason for this is that in both seasons of American Horror Story, the interplay of characters and plot has let us experience these horror clichés from a new range of angles. Further and even more crucial to the show’s distinctive qualities is the fact that in each season of American Horror Story, the season’s respective settings are the main characters. The main character in American Horror Story: Murder House (2011) was the haunted house itself, likewise the main character in American Horror Story: Asylum (2012) was the Briarcliff Manor insane asylum.

Setting As Character in Wider Fiction

Using setting as character has a long tradition in storytelling. When setting is used as character, places – be they geographical locations, individual buildings or both – have a profound and intrinsic influence over the characters and plot events within the narrative, so much so that without that setting, the narrative events would have been significantly different.

In Mervyn Peake’s classic fantasy series, Gormenghast (1946-1959) the crumbling Gormenghast castle connects all characters, events and all motivations. Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca (1938) opens with the classic line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Throughout the novel, the Manderley estate comes to embody the essence of all of the unnamed protagonist’s experiences in being haunted by the spectre of her husband’s first wife, Rebecca.

In China Miéville’s Bas-Lag series of novels, the city New Crobuzon has its own personality and effect on characters. Even when a Bas-Lag novel is not itself explicitly set within the city, The Scar (2002) for example, New Crobuzon itself is a driving influence of the main characters.  Ankh-Morpork from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels has a similar function as an almost living and breathing character within the books that has an ever present sway over characters and events even when they are not actually within the city itself.

The Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining (1976) is another example where setting becomes character. The Overlook has a profound influence over events and other characters simply by being the setting. Would Jack Torrance have been broken in the way that he was had he lost his mind in any other setting? Or would he have lost his mind at all? Certainly, Jack has leanings to madness, is an alcoholic, has a raging temper and his life isn’t exactly stable before taking the job at The Overlook, but it’s the hotel itself that possesses him through the weakness of his existing troubles, and as such it is the hotel that drives the horror and the entire story forward.

American Horror Story season one sees a similar situation. When the Harmon family move into the haunted house they already have their troubles in place but it is the experience of the murder house specifically that brings everything to its horrific climax and conclusion.

American-Horror-Story-house-American Horror Story: Murder House (Season 1)

American Horror Story season one brought us all of the trappings of the typical haunted house story, and there isn’t really anything here we haven’t seen before. The grisly secrets in the basement; the sinister image of the child’s toy (in this case, a ball) moving along by itself with a steady cam tracking brings thoughts of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining (1980). The Harmon family moves into the house with its gruesome history and falls under its sway, just the Lutz family in The Amityville Horror (1979/2005) and a host of other haunted house stories. The show also draws on America’s own real life horror history bringing familiar tales of the famous Black Dahlia murders and the Columbine State shootings (or similar events) into this season’s plot. All of these scenarios are all very familiar to us and yet the story maintains a freshness. This is for the most part due to its finely crafted characters – the Harmons themselves; Moira, the ghostly double-faced housekeeper; Tate the murdering teenager with the soft side we can’t help but feel a sympathy for; and the show’s most outstanding character, Constance Langdon whose Southern American Gothic sensibilities bring a mesmerising sense of elegant menace to the show, executed to perfection by the incomparable Jessica Lange.

American Horror Story constanceConstance Langdon, Characters and The Murder House

Constance is one of a few living characters with a connection to the truth of the murder house and it’s through Constance that the Harmons start to glimpse the dark realities of their new abode.  As so much of her own haunted past is tied up in that house, Constance is the strongest connection between the living and the dead and the house is, in a way, able to express its own characterisation through her.

Despite the fact Jessica Lange stole the show with what was the hands down best performance in the entire series, the main character in American Horror Story Season One continues to be the house itself. The murder house is the principle driving force that connects every character, living and dead; it connects past to present and it’s that address that keeps the dead clinging to the living world which is the entire premise of the series.

Each set of characters in American Horror Story: Murder House has their own individual chapter in the overall story giving the season its own internal anthology as each new generation of ghosts is introduced. Without the house, there is no cohesion to this internal anthology. The house ties everything and everyone together and then finally brings the Harmon family and their own tragic lives into the history of its own walls as they themselves become part of it.

American Horror Story Continues

When the first season of American Horror Story finished, every narrative thread had ended and all characters were complete. Since the many storylines had their respective and collective closures, there wasn’t anywhere else for the plot to move. The house had been explored, every character nuance of its walls explained and now exhausted.  The only other way a series two could have come out of this same story was to have another living family move into the house and for the same situations to play itself out again, this time with the Harmon family as the principle ghosts. This would have been a ridiculous creative move in terms of story as well as the show’s esteem and success. But there had to be another series. This was a successful show with high production values, a talented cast and for all its flaws overshadowed by its many stellar qualities, audiences and critics just loved it. Enter American Horror Story: Asylum – a completely new story with many of the same cast.

American Horror Story: Asylum (Season 2)

Where Murder House brought us all of the trappings of a haunted house horror story, Asylum did the same as a collection of every sinister story we’ve ever seen or read about mental institutions, mad scientists and demonic possession. Oh, and then there was that alien story, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Although season two of American Horror Story was a different setting and story, the new series essentially used the same overarching effect as season one – the present and the past haunted in and by a horrific setting, this time the Briarcliff insane asylum. Like the Murder House, Briarcliff has its own dark personality, its own dark force and is the principle driving point of the narrative and all of the characters in the series. Just as the Murder House was the main character in Season One, Briarcliff Manor is the main character in American Horror Story season two.

American Horror Story: Asylum – Cliché and Multiple Plots

There seem to be two complaints of American Horror Story season two that spark the most ire in critics: the series had too many clichés and too many plots.

While the series did draw heavily on tropes of the insane asylum as a disquieting setting it uses these generic standards to a different overall effect. We’ve seen insane asylums in horror settings (In The Mouth of Madness – 1994), we’ve seen the megalomaniacal care staff (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – 1975), and we’ve seen countless priest, nun and satanic possession interchanges, serial killers, alien abductions, mad scientist experiments. Yet, in season two of American Horror Story, these familiarities aren’t cliché as they still succeed in their intended effect. Generic standards let us know what to expect from a text but then strong characterisation and different nuances of the plot lines add entirely new dimensions to the overall familiarity.

The most often complained about storyline in American Horror Story is the alien subplot.  Nothing really tangible ever comes of Kit’s alien storyline, a fact that’s upset a lot of critics and viewers. Perhaps it’s simply a case of poor TV writing, but the unexplained resolution does add to the mystery and the weirdness of the entire story which may be its overall point. The interconnection and muddled nature of the many plot lines contributes to an overall sense of madness within the series, and as such the multiple stories and hazy endings can be seen less of an unnecessary confusion and more of a satisfying effect. Again, this all comes back to understanding Briarcliff as the show’s central character.American Horror Story briarcliff

Briarcliff

This maddening effect of multiple plotlines is able to be executed because the real central character of the show is Briarcliff.  Briarcliff ties everything together in motivation, in cause and in effect. When that’s understood, all criticisms of the show’s multiple plots lose ground.

In the first part of the season, the show’s central antagonist characters – Jude, Doctor Arden, the Monseigneur, Thredson, and even the Devil –are performing their own versions of evil or at least a basic wrongness, and the good characters are trying to escape the wrong doings of these people.  As the series progresses, the clear lines between the basic good characters and the basic bad characters are blurred to the point of erasure as the bad characters themselves start to suffer at the hands (or walls) of Briarcliff. When the estate is repurposed as a prison ward, more evil continues even though the original wrong doing people have been vanquished. It’s Briarcliff itself that’s the threat, not its individual inhabitants.

Sister Jude, Character and Briarcliff

In Sister Jude, Asylum gives Jessica Lange the front stage that her Murder House character needed. Jude is a fallen woman, an alcoholic lounge singer turned nun who runs the Briarcliff Manor insane asylum. She’s tough as hell and righteous as sin, and despite her nun’s habit the other habits she’s renounced for God make their way back. She lusts after Monseigneur Timothy, attracted to his power and his holiness as much as she is his physicality, and hiding all of that in the shape of her sexy red lingerie worn under her neck to toe habit. Jude isn’t quite so megalomaniacal as Nurse Ratched from Miloš Forman’s adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) but that threat is still though it’s a different display of power.

American Horror Story sister judeThe American Horror Story characters function individually as parts of the whole that is Briarcliff. Jude embodies one part of Briarcliff’s character – the dominion of order and administration at the hands of a power that’s meant to be humbly serving the greater good. Monseigneur Timothy embodies another aspect as the absolute corruption of that power to his own means. Sister Mary Eunice takes another character as the perversion of that power, and Doctor Arden wraps all of these aspects together but instead of the Church, his power is science. Thredson’s power is also science, the new breed of psychoanalytic theory, but of course his has an even darker side.  Lana is not only fighting against Jude or Thredson in her efforts to escape, but Briarcliff as a whole being – the entire corruption, the perversion and the power be that of the church or the visions of science, with both Doctor Arden and Doctor Thredson as two very different sides of that scientific authority.

Every kind of evil is present in Briarcliff and the asylum continues as its own form of hell even after the Devil himself has left. Kit and Lana were able to function as the saviours as they were the two people who didn’t belong there and had no real connection to the place so they didn’t form any part of its character. It’s only when we see Briarcliff ended that we have the drawn out resolutions finally find their closure.

American Horror Story: Coven (Season 3)

As news of American Horror Story season three starts to surface around the web, we see the creators will be taking their award winning horror anthology formula the iconic location, New Orleans.

Earlier this year, rumours American Horror Story: Salem flooded the Internet with speculation the show would take on the historic Salem witch trials. The creators have since revealed season three will indeed be a witch story but rather, American Horror Story: Coven and have started filming in Louisiana. Speaking to the media, the creators have said their new series will focus on location, and the show’s researchers have been examining the most haunted places in America.

With the deeply rooted Southern Gothic traditions of Louisiana, we can already get a general idea of what the new may be like because of its strong connection to place and so American Horror Story season three looks to be following the patterns of its predecessors in positioning its setting as character.

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Kate Krake

Kate Krake (aka Kate Murphy) is a writer with a long established passion for all realms of popular culture. She lives in Brisbane, Australia. Find out more on Kate's Blog.
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