[Spoilers for American Horror Story: Murder House and Hotel.]
Since the very first season of American Horror Story, retroactively subtitled Murder House, the subject of the show's horror has always been America itself. Most of the action takes place within the triangle of pop culture, genre convention and contemporary American life, filtering American culture through a surrealistic mishmash of its own horror iconography and tropes: the Murder House in the first season was family home, hackneyed horror setting and Hollywood tourist attraction rolled into one.
The murders that took place in and around the Murder House were generally themed around their notoriety and the lurid fascination they inspired: home invaders tried to recreate famous murders that took place in it; new owner Vivian learned about the house's gruesome history through a tacky sightseeing tour; a fictionalised version of the Black Dahlia featured, ironically seeking fame; and one major story revolved around a school shooting, the most infamous kind of American spectacle.
The dramatic nucleus of the show was still the domestic stuff—marital conflict, adultery, teenage angst—but while the Harmon family were played relatively straight in comparison to most of the ghostly characters around them, the show always treated their lives with a certain camp irony, heightened by so many trashy horror tropes. In effect, it aimed to be a satirical grotesque of American life, inseparable from and saturated by the morbid sensationalism that surrounds it.
Given this premise, glamorous LA has always been the show's most natural setting, and Hotel, the fifth season, returned there to revisit this territory more directly. Among other things, it explored the relationship between glamour and violence, every episode drenched in decadent, bloody spectacle. The characters in Hotel were all movie pastiches, fashion models, or washed up victims of the Hollywood lifestyle, fixated on fame, beauty and youth. The show's leveraging of stunt-casting and well-known or high-calibre actors—probably reaching its apex with Hotel, which heavily promoted Lady Gaga—deepened the irony of the premise.
If Hotel's Gaga fixation revealed one thing, it's that the two share the same kind of 'pop' mentality: it's all about the meat dress novelty; the striking, immediately accessible flavours of the weird and disturbing, relying mainly on the potency of the image.
I don't know if this is necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it tends to give the show a very short attention span, quickly losing interest in the myriad elements it introduces to a story. What might work pretty well for a music video (or for the show's promotional material, which is always about flavour more than story or character) tends not to sustain a season-long narrative. Character motivations become disjointed, fragmented and nonsensical in service of the next shocking 'concept', and it doesn't take long for the story to collapse in on itself.
Pop is light and playful, even when it's dark, and doesn't want to get entrenched in such nerdery. Pop is a fashion show, striking poses through endless novel mutations, striving for the hook that will draw in the crowd. Pop is Kimojis, characters and concept ideally distilled into instantly recognisable icons and meme-worthy moments, all the easier to package and consume.
Pop horror makes sense and it also doesn't: shock value and transgression can be understood in terms of novelty and provocation, and sex and horror often come together for that reason. A dark and sinister effect can also be achieved precisely by treating certain subjects with breezy, even superficial lightness, which Hotel does to render its cold and ghastly, desensitised Hollywood. But for some kinds of horror, the pop treatment doesn't work, like any time it depends on anything resembling sustained emotional reality.
AHS' strength has always been in writing sassy grotesques and letting good actors round them out with some humanity. When the script tries to do the emotional heavylifting, it's usually far less successful, leading to bad melodrama, bland sentimentality, or the otherwise rote pastiche of something the writers seem to remember having seen on TV about humans and emotions one time, filtered through several layers of foggy alien cling film.
It doesn't often seem to know how psychological horror works. Hotel's biggest twist hinges on the character of John Lowe, the protagonist: how invested we are in his state of mind, and how cleverly we're deceived by it when the twist comes. But Lowe is nothing more than the surface details of his unravelling psychosis, lots of tilty camerawork and hoarse screaming. Instead of state of mind, the show gives us flattened collage, to a soundtrack of synth and gothic rock.
Hotel probably feels the most synthetic of all the AHS seasons. It has a hyper-aware sense of its own style and set-dressing, and the Hotel Cortez is less a place than a series of photo ops. Everything is gorgeous to look at, but almost too glossy for its own good, never penetrating beyond the artificially dream-like.
But the show has always been like this: an onslaught of striking imagery, sometimes shocking but never particularly scary, liberally applying horror conventions without always understanding the context in which they're meant to operate. AHS seems fascinated by the allure of its images—especially appropriate for a season focused so much on the celluloid glamour of Hollywood—but only rarely seems to know how to harness their thematic potential, or actually explore what makes them so fascinating.
Theme in any work of art arises from the attempt to find coherence between a bunch of different elements that in some way resonate with each other. Internal logic, on which the proper functioning of genre conventions usually depends, arises from that coherence establishing itself in the form of a fictional world—a world you can then explore and play around in, discovering the relationship between all of its parts.
The very premise of American Horror Story is to take all of this seemingly incongruous pop-culture stuff, all of this strange and iconic imagery from the American consciousness, and to create something holistically weird and compelling out of it—each story in its anthology offering a different unifying focus.
Like any good genre show, when it's able to redefine the world according to its own bizarro but coherent terms, and then to exploit those terms creatively, it finds that focus. The ghost logic in Murder House, for example, though executed as gratuitously as anything else in AHS (it's mainly a mechanism to barrage the viewer with a thousand things at once), structures our understanding of the world so that certain revelations can unfold meaningfully, like why Tate is being harassed by those schoolkids on Hallowe'en, or why Violet won't leave the house.
Hotel reintroduced this ghost logic but didn't exploit it in any particularly imaginative way—it provided no major twists, just a whole lot of coming and going. But there was a semi-interesting angle in its ghosts (or undead) of cinema past, or those whose affectations came through like a disturbing wireless broadcast from another era. These figures tend to represent aspects of American culture and history that continue to haunt the American psyche across time: if Evan Peters' character in Hotel feels like an errant signal from the 1920s, his character in Murder House is effectively the same thing from the '90s, with the Columbine shooting.
Probably the most notable extension of the ghost stuff in Hotel was Devil's Night, which continued the AHS tradition of shifting the rules every Hallowe'en night to boost the power of the dead over reality. In the Devil's Night episode, a bunch of real-life American serial killers, including Aileen Wuornos, John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer, return from the dead to check in for a single night at the hotel.
The episode reflects America's cultural fascination with serial killers, who are treated, in the context of the hotel's perverted shadow-Hollywood, like celebrities, risen from the dead to attend a VIP dinner party for only the most despicable murderers. In the process, it also reduces them to an evening's trashy, sensationalistic entertainment.
The whole thing has the show's usual air of camp irony, probably intended to extend meta-ly to the spectacle itself: what we're presented with, again, is a grotesque, an absurd heightening of America's morbid fascinations, exposed in all of their hideous glory.
In the context of everything else, though, it's just the latest gratuitous spectacle, one more in the endless parade. Even if some of AHS' gruesome drama is supposed to feel ironically excessive and desensitised, a satirical take on American culture, there reaches a point where it desensitises even its own sense of irony, merely affecting a distance that allows it to be a trashy mess because it knows it's a trashy mess.
There's good trash and bad trash. Good trash, I guess, would take the melodrama and sensationalism and pulpy genre impulses and do something clever and knowing and interesting with them, assembling magnificent garbage structures that stand as delightful and/or horrifying monuments to human nature and society.
Bad trash is when a show will keep throwing at you whatever shit it takes just to keep your attention.
The thing about bad trash is that it's ultimately boring. It's cheap and it's exploitative and it gets old fast. There's not much fun to be had once you realise just how much it lacks imagination.
Aside from its odd penchant for sentimental endings, though—and again, dark irony or another example of instant gratification, or both?—maybe AHS wants to be that cynical. It has a kind of pure weirdness value that makes it immediately compelling—a pop mentality that can be a lot of fun—and sometimes, just sometimes, it all comes together to make something more. But at its darkest, and dullest, it's bad trash all the way down.