One of the few things that can be confidently predicted about the upcoming third season of American Horror Story is that it will not content itself with a single set of tropes. Apart from a general visual style and the recurrence of a handful of actors playing new characters, the one onscreen feature that carried over from the first season to the second was its writers’ strategy of barraging viewers with multiple antagonists, each representing a different horror story convention. Underlying it all is a preoccupation with evil—understandable given the show’s genre, but made strangely fuzzy by its scatter-shot approach to plot.
Subtitled Asylum, season two offered a smorgasbord of evils, something for just about every conceivable taste. If the supernatural terrors of satanic possession failed to unnerve, you could always focus on the scientific (human experimentation), historical (a refugee Nazi), psychological (several sociopaths), institutional (an abusive Church-run sanitarium and the even worse neglect of its state-operated successor)—even a bit of science fiction by way of infrequent alien appearances.
Despite the logistical hurdles presented by so many narrative threads, the show’s handlers and writers managed to weave them into something that bears a striking resemblance to story. Really, though, that’s beside the point. The goal is simply to keep the audience off-balance. When one set of conventions begins to lead too readily toward a predictable conclusion, the show arranges a narrative collision that disrupts our expectations. To the question of what makes this a specifically American horror story, the best answer may be simply its plurality—the evils depicted each season cannot keep from tripping over one another’s stories.
That is not, however, a strategy devoid of liabilities. For one, it makes wrapping up stories difficult. Twice now, the show’s seasons have run long, ending with milquetoast episodes that add precious little, but which indulge the writers’ desire to follow the characters beyond the trajectory set by the struggles they fight. Even having settled most of its major conflicts, Asylum lingered on another three episodes, letting distinctly secondary characters drive what’s left of the plot. By then, the smorgasbord was already over; what few horrors remained were reheated leftovers.
The moral incoherence of the show’s multiple plot lines may also help account for that feeling of anti-climax. The antagonist in Asylum‘s final confrontation is a serial killer, one of several in the season, which makes the denouement feel like something we’ve done before. Nor is there much to invest us in this late plot: we’ve seen the killer brutalize several peripheral characters, but since he has had virtually no interaction with the central protagonists, there’s not much chance of catharsis. The goal may have been cheeky—is it a sly criticism of current horror movie trends that this copycat version of the season’s primary serial killer character cops to being less talented? The punchline to breast-feeding fixation is that the genre is undernourished, but the joke doesn’t deserve the air time it receives.
Nor is it clear how a show like American Horror Story could nourish the next generation. A coherent sense of evil would help. With Asylum it’s enough that no blatant contradictions arise between otherwise competing modes of evil.
Nowhere is that more clear than in the theological subplot. A demon (possibly Satan, if we trust its word) takes possession of a guileless nun, using her purity as a shield against the normal remedies of exorcism. That threatens to derail the carefully maintained balance of evils since, if we’re allowed to extrapolate, the introduction of the cosmic battled between God and Satan cannot help but overshadow the other plots.
To keep it in check, the writers maintain a constant ambiguity around the demon’s goals. As far as providing room to play for other evils, that does the trick, but it also ends up hamstringing the possession plot. The initial suggestion that she’s out to co-opt the scientist’s army of mutated human monsters is quickly shed as she leaps to a new goal: riding the monseigneur’s coattails straight to the Vatican.
From that, it’s possible to infer some intimation of Antichrist, but it’s never more than an intimation. Putting too fine a point on it would reconfirm the theological hierarchy they’ve worked so hard to obscure. In one scene, the nun admits to being the devil, then turns right around and blithely denies the existence of God. Given the marginal efficacy of Catholic relics in an earlier episode, that’s probably a lie, but since God never offers a clear counterargument, the scene opens up a critical ambiguity in the show’s theology. But the Adversary needs a foe, so a later episode introduces a supernatural competitor, the Angel of Death, but she, too, seems rather aimless and constrained.
The result is a singularly toothless depiction of the supernatural. There’s no denying that the cosmos of Asylum harbors supernatural agents, but also no guarantee that any of them are good or in control. What remains is an evil that is only incidentally supernatural, which raises the question: why bother?
Or consider the cluster of subplots surrounding Dr. Arthur Arden. The character ushers in no less than three horror movie archetypes—the mad scientist, the sexually frustrated predator, and the Nazi sadist. You would think that the sum of those evils would result in a character that cumulatively more destructive, a singular force for evil, but they end up frustrating one another. Most of his potential for real bedlam is botched in a series of false starts and incomplete gestures. Thus, apart from the occasional anti-Semitic outburst, his Nazi past figures in mostly as a complication, attracting the attention of the police. As mad scientist, he devolves humans into misshapen cannibal monsters; they’re allowed to lurk menacingly on the edges of several episodes, but never really invited into the plot proper. Arden’s sexual deviancy gets more screen time, and occasionally manages to turn the plot, but the one victim he claims that way actually dies at someone else’s hands, and most of the other principles are too busy to even notice that she’s missing. James Cromwell plays Arden with gravity and menace, but the task of juggling so many tropes ultimately makes the character pathetic without being sympathetic.
The characters in Asylum are constantly bringing up the subject of miracles, but the big miracle of the show is that its pastiche of horror tropes works at all. It does so by hewing close to established types and allowing the audiences to bring their own previously cultivated associations to each episode. Arden’s creatures need very little narrative development because we already know their type from a thousand movies and stories. They need not even do anything particularly evil, since we associate them with the evils we’ve seen in everything from The Island of Dr. Moreau to Re-Animator.
Nor does it particularly matter that the cosmological and psychological evils claim equal standing, vying for the spotlight and ultimately undermining one another. Any broad view of the show’s depiction of evil per se will reveal it to be incoherent. That would be a liability in most horror stories, which horrify by harnessing deep, not entirely explicable evils into a unity. That need for unity is why horror movie match-ups, like Godzilla Vs King Kong or Dracula Vs Frankenstein, never actually scare.
If American Horror Story works despite its plurality of evils, it may be because, like those match-ups, it rarely functions as a horror story. Alien Vs Predator wears the trappings of the horror genre, but it is really, at heart, an action-thriller. Likewise, American Horror Story advertises itself as a horror story—as the horror story corresponding to our national identity—and its use of the familiar horror movie imagery may even stir up old nightmares. It ends up being, rather, a show about horror stories, about their plurality in the American consciousness, and about the moral confusion that arises when no one can agree on which evil threatens us more.