American Horror Story: Season 1: Murder House

Twin Peaks meets Pulp Fiction?

Am I late to the party that is American Horror Story?

Sure I am.

I’m not sure why, though. I am American. I consider myself to be a fan of horror fiction. Maybe not a fanatic, but certainly a fan. I was aware that there was a popular thing known as American Horror Story. I even told myself that it sounded like something I would like to watch. Someday.

Then the somedays kept piling up and I became daunted by the number of seasons of the series that already existed.

I’m no stranger to making commitments to watch series that span multiple seasons. At present, I’m about halfway through the fifth season (of ten) of Stargate: SG-1. I’m doing a slow, measured rewatch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I’m in the third season (of seven). In the past, I’ve made my way, methodically, through every Trek series from TOS through Star Trek: Enterprise, as well as remaining current with the new series, through at least 2020. Likewise, I plowed through fifteen seasons of Supernatural at a breakneck pace that I no longer employ nor recommend.

But, for reasons I can’t explain, AHS never even made it to my prodigious To-Be-Watched list, an integral component of my stolen Looking-Forward philosophy of pursuing happiness through entertainment.

I’m still not committing to watching the ten existing seasons of the series. At least, not in succession. But, I found myself with a couple of weekly entertainment slots coming open and decided to take a flyer on the first season, now known as “Murder House.”

Consider this a test drive.

Since this series debuted a decade ago now, I’m not going to shy away from SPOILERS. You have been warned.

The season kicks off like the setup to most haunted house horror movies. A psychiatrist and his wife, and their teenaged daughter, move to this house in Los Angeles whose previous tenants both died in a murder-suicide. The couple, played by Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton, are experiencing a rough patch in their marriage after the wife caught her husband en flagrant dilecto with one of his students. This event occurred not long after the wife had a miscarriage. So, there’s a lot of emotions swirling around there. Grief, anger, feelings of betrayal and abandonment. In the pilot episode, we learn that the psychiatrist and his wife haven’t made love in a year.

There’s more stuff. The new tenants find that a housekeeper sort of comes with the house. To the wife, she appears as an older woman, but to the husband she is young and attractive. Something’s up here.

The psychiatrist also has a new patient who seems to be trying to channel Kurt Cobain. The patient fantasizes about committing some grandiose act of violence at the school. Naturally, the daughter is attracted to this psycho. She has problems of her own, of course, which includes both self-harm and getting into violent conflicts at school. It doesn’t seem as if the Cobain fan and the daughter are going to be good for each other. He does get the school bully off her back by scaring her with a succession of horror show images.

There’s definitely something wrong with the house. There’s the prerequisite creepy twins. This time it’s two murdered teenage boys. Then there’s the creepy nosy neighbor, played by Jessica Lange, who seems to be a kleptomaniac. She has a daughter with Downs syndrome whose idea of an icebreaker is to tell the new owners of the house that they are going to die in there. The neighbor seems to know the shape-shifting housekeeper, and they both seem to know a whole lot more than the house’s new owners.

Then there’s the subplot about the gimp suit found in the attic, and the wife becoming pregnant after she and her husband end their sexual drought (at least once, although someone came to Connie Britton wearing that gimp suit as well).

Because the series seems to enjoy piling on the weirdness, it immediately reminded me of Twin Peaks. Quirky characters, kinky sexual situations, violent horror images, and a sprinkling of teenage angst. I’ll admit that the pilot caught my attention and held it. I’m not sure how this plot can be stretched out for an entire season.

By the second episode, the season veers off in a related—but different—direction. Dr. Ben (McDermott) tells Vivien (Britton) that he has to return to their former home to deal with a former patient. In reality, he’s going to be at his young lover’s side as she has an abortion. While Ben is away, a group of psycho serial-killer groupies carries out a home invasion, attempting to recreate a Richard Speck-like murder of nursing students. Tate Langdon (Evan Peters), the new patient that Ben is worried about, especially after he becomes fixated on Violet (Taissa Farmiga), is on-hand to save the female Harmons.

It turns out that nosy neighbor Constance Langdon (Lange), shapeshifting maid Moira O’Hara (Frances Conroy/Alexandra Brekenridge), and Tate seem to be in cahoots. It’s apparent that the so-called Murder House has a past that’s deeper than merely the murder-suicide of its previous tenants. Knowingly or not, Constance helped defeat the psycho groupies (shades of Manson Family here for sure) by poisoning her cupcake gift for Violet with ipecac.

Ben leaves his baby mama’s side to rejoin his family. Naturally, Vivien wants to sell the house. Makes sense. End of season.

Except that’s not the way it’s going to go down.

We find out that creepy neighbor Jessica Lange, way back in the 1980s, murdered her husband and the maid—the same maid working for the Harmons in present time, by the way—for having an affair. She shot the maid in the eye, which is why she now has the one pale eye. The maid says she wants to move on, but can’t. Somehow, the Murder House is holding her there.

In the present, Ben threatens to fire Moira, who keeps trying to seduce the psychiatrist. Vivien, who still sees the Old Moira, thinks Ben is losing it. Ben thinks Vivien has PTSD because of the home invasion, so the scales are balanced.

Vivien strongarms the real estate woman who sold them the house and tells her she’s going to try to sell the house for them, or she will sue her for criminal negligence, even though the Realtor insists that the law only requires them to disclose murders within the last three years. Since the Harmons are currently cash poor, they can’t just leave. Vivien is outside when she sees a dark-themed tour bus stop outside and refer to their house as the “murder house.” Vivien takes the tour and learns the history of the house.

The Murder House was built in 1922 by Dr. Charles Montgomery, acclaimed surgeon to the stars, for his wife Nora, a prominent East Cost socialite. This is a straight transcription of the tour guide’s patter. When they fell on hard times, the doctor became addicted to drugs and developed a “Frankenstein” complex. Socialite wife Nora—who was a bit of an elitist shrew—goads the doc into doing illegal abortions for money.

During the tour, Vivien begins to spot. The baby doctor tells her there’s nothing to worry about. She also tells both Ben and Vivien that they shouldn’t move while she is pregnant. Death, divorce, moving—these are the three most stressful situations anyone can experience.

So, we’re doubling down on the reasons the Harmons can’t move. No money, Ben’s practice isn’t thriving yet, poor seller’s market, no additional stress for the expectant mother.

Violet is still seeing Tate on the side. A patient Ben saw only once is now a missing person. A scene showing Young Moira cleaning up blood suggests that Ben killed the missing woman. She’s not dead, just in a coma after a failed suicide attempt. She was found with Ben’s recorder on her, and the detective is angry with Ben for not being more forthcoming with his answers. The patient slashed her wrists in his office, it seems, which explains all the blood.

Because there’s not enough stress in the lives of the Harmons, Ben’s baby mama shows up. Since he abandoned her because of the home invasion, she didn’t get the abortion, and now she expects Ben to foot the bill for her own move to Los Angeles. The plot thickens.

Incidentally, the detective who questions Ben over the missing patient also sees Moira as her younger self. It’s not just Ben.

There’s also the crazy burn-scarred man who keeps harrassing Ben. This guy murdered his family and is now terminally ill. He attempts to extort money from the psychiatrist. Ben rebuffs him.

Ben also keeps passing out. He says he often comes to in the same spot in the yard, lying on what appears to be a relatively fresh grave. He passed out just before his boring patient ended up missing, and once in the baby doctor’s office.

Vivien is visited by one of the house’s ghosts, a young woman we saw in an earlier 1920s abortion flashback.

Burn victim guy, who may or may not exist, kills Ben’s mistress with a shovel and then continues digging the hole Ben had already started in the backyard. He also tells Ben that he could really use that $1000, for “head shots.” While digging, Burn Guy unearths another corpse, apparently Moira’s body. This particular episode closes with Ben laying a concrete foundation and building a gazebo on top of the impromptu grave.

Apparently, people don’t stay dead around the Murder House. In addition to Moira, we are visited by the murder-suicide gay couple who owned the house before Ben and Vivien. They are real estate “fluffers” who are trying to help the Harmons showcase their house for Halloween to generate some buyers. Zachary Quinto plays Chad, one-half of the couple, and he always turns in a good performance. Turns out that Chad and his partner Patrick weren’t exactly a murder-suicide. Tate the Cobain wannabe, who’s working on corrupting Violet Harmon, may or may not have been involved in their deaths. I’m not telling. Some things you need to discover on your own.

As if this weren’t enough going on, we’re treated to a visit to the baby doctor, who passes out after seeing the image of the unborn Harmon through an ultrasound.

Then, the nosy neighbor’s Downs syndrome daughter is hit and apparently killed by a hit-and-run driver on Halloween night.

These myriad plot threads are another thing that reminds me of Twin Peaks. We’re not even halfway through the season, and here’s what’s going on:

The Harmons moved all the way across the country from the east coast to Los Angeles, getting a fresh start after the husband got caught having an affair.

They got a deal on a nice house. It seems there have been a series of murders there over the years. The original owner of the house became a drug-addicted abortion doctor who stole pages from Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s playbook. The baby kidnapping portion of this backstory borrowed from that of the Lindbergh baby case. Later, there were nurses murdered in the house, ala Richard Speck.

We find out that Tate is actually Mrs. Langdon’s son. He may or may not be one of the undead Murder House residents. He also may or may not have killed a bunch of students in his high school, possibly as one of those crazy school shooters. Since one of his “victims” says she’d be in her thirties now, if not for Tate, that suggests that Tate is one of the undead. We get a flashback to 1994 and a school shooting sequence that I find much scarier than the idea of a haunted house. 1994 was the year Kurt Cobain committed suicide, by the way.

Violet finds the whole Westfield High Massacre story on line because the internet and cell phones have changed horror stories forever. She finds Tate’s image, and those of the Halloween teen victims, and she freaks out. Naturally.

Eric Stonestreet stops in to see Dr. Harmon. “Hey,” I said, “What’s Cam from Modern Family doing on American Horror Story?” My hound dog Cooper lifted his head and looked at me, wondering if any of the words I said were the names of foods. He’s an optimistic animal. Stonestreet’s character is tormented by urban legends of all sorts. To Ben, he recounts the legend of the Piggy Man, a departed hog-butcher from Chicago who is summoned, ala Candyman or Bloody Mary, by repeating some inane phrase in front of a mirror. I think it was “Here, piggy-pig pig.” After this splatter movie homage, a dreamlike sequence, I realized that this series was trying to somehow explore every horror movie trope in existence.

We also get the type of horror that you feel when watching people eat disgusting things. Vivien eats a raw animal brain with apparent relish. For the health of the baby, you understand. What animal? Largish brain. Cow? Pig? Human? You decide.

Vivien tries to let Moira go, because they can’t afford to pay her, but the maid says she will work for free. She won’t let it be said that she left a pregnant woman in her time of need. Otherwise, how would Vivien get her sauteed sweetbreads, raw pancreas and brains?

Violet tries to commit suicide with a pill overdose. Tate saves her. Or does he?

Vivien tracks down the nurse who did her ultrasound and fainted. She’s in a Catholic church, and tells Vivien that she carries the unclean thing, The Beast, in her womb. So, we’re in Rosemary’s Baby territory as well. Or, The Omen. This thing is all over the road. I get the feeling it should pick a lane and stay in it.

Cam ends his guest-starring spot by saying the Piggy Man thing three times in the mirror and then getting killed by a burglar hiding in his shower behind the curtain. Alannis would call this ironic.

Mrs. Langdon uses a medium to talk to her dead daughter Addy, who tells her she’s glad that her mom didn’t get her to the lawn because she doesn’t want to be with Tate. Now that she’s on the other side, a true pretty girl, she’s afraid of her brother now that she knows the truth about him.

We get to see the end of the Tate flashback, where he is killed by the police while his mother cries in the hallway. Then, we see that Violet embraces Tate, even after she’s learned the truth about him. A metaphor for her embracing the darkness of the Murder House? Hmm.

In “Open House,” Aram from The Blacklist (Amir Arison) arrives as an Armenian who plans to buy the Murder House and raze it to develop the property. We also find out that Mrs. Langdon has another son, Beauregard, who she used to keep chained in the attic of the house. He was actually murdered by Burn Guy, who was leaving his wife and daughters for Mrs. Langdon. His wife was the one who started the fire that killed her and her daughters, but it is not how he got horribly burned. More on that in a moment.

Vivien finds out that she’s having twins. But, she’s still convinced that something is wrong with the babies. Also, we get the end of the Dr. Frankenstein plot. Dr. Montgomery was successful at resurrecting their dismembered baby, using the heart from one of the abortion patients. Mrs. Montgomery tried and failed to kill the resulting creature, and then killed her husband and herself.

Vivien gets carted off to the funny farm. We find out that Tate was the guy in the rubber gimp suit who had sex with Vivien. In addition, it’s discovered that Vivien’s twins were fathered by two different men. Dr. Harmon is told only because he’s listed as her medical proxy. I still think this type of news might have been withheld from the husband.

Somehow, Elizabeth Short—the Black Dahlia—becomes one of Ben’s new patients. Of course, she’s another ghost resident of the Murder House. A dentist played by The West Wing‘s Joshua Malina was responsible for her death.

Mrs. Langdon, meanwhile, had been prepping her dogwalker/aspiring actor young boyfriend to become a daddy. She knows that one of Vivien Harmon’s babies is actually Tate’s, and she plans to somehow adopt it. Ben Harmon’s dead mistress murders the dogwalker, and the ghostly residents of the house give his body the Black Dahlia treatment and have the Burned Guy leave the parts somewhere other than the house.

Mrs. Langdon’s psychics, responding to her hypothetical questions about the procreation of a human and a spirit, tells the crazy neighbor that a child of such a union would be the very essence of evil, the Antichrist. The Omen again.

In a series of flashbacks, we also learn that Mrs. Langdon and Burn Guy were an item after his family’s self-immolation. Only, he wasn’t Crispy Critter yet. I had assumed that he had been burned trying to save his daughters and distraught wife, but it was, in fact, Tate Langdon who burned him, at work, before heading to the high school to commit his mass murder.

Eventually, Ben Harmon becomes convinced that Vivien was telling the truth about the rape by the Rubber Man (who was Tate). Tate reveals to Violet that she is also dead, and another prisoner of the Murder House. She actually died during a suicide attempt that we, the viewers, saw, but then assumed Tate had reached her in time to save her. Nope. She’s dead and decomposing in the crawlspace under the house.

Mrs. Langdon becomes the prime suspect in her boy-toy’s murder. It seems that she’s been the prime suspect in a number of murders over the years and the police are insistent about pinning at least one of them on her. Burn Guy steps up and confesses to the murder, which he knows some of the withheld details about because he was the one who disposed of the body for the ghosts of Murder House. His confession seemed to be more about getting away from the house rather than his obsessive love for Mrs. Langdon, but I could be misinterpreting this. A complicated plot thread, and, I suspect, probably a pointless one.

Then, Constance Langdon’s medium friend talks about the lost colony of Roanoke, tying it to the phenomenon of the Murder House somehow. The medium knows that Violet is dead, but Violet doesn’t want Constance to know. As Dr. Ben is picking up Vivien from the nuthouse, the doctor there tells them that one of her fetuses is growing at a faster rate than the other, seems to taking nutrients from the weaker one. Vivien says she is going to Florida. She doesn’t intend to stay at the Murder House any longer. Smart woman.

Vivien’s giving-birth scene is very much an homage to Rosemary’s Baby. I would have been disappointed if it wasn’t. Everything seems to be connected to the babies. The living ghost of Nora Montgomery wants one of them. So does Dr. Ben’s late baby-mama—the one buried under the gazebo with maid Moira. Constance Langdon wants the baby that was fathered by her dead son Tate; all of her children are dead, so she’s owed one, right?

As the penultimate episode ends, we are in a very dark place. I didn’t expect that we’d get much light in the last episode. And, we don’t. Dark, depressing endings may be considered a horror story trope. I warned you that there would be spoilers. None of the Harmons survive this story. Vivien dies in childbirth, and Dr. Ben is killed by the other residents of the house, who make it look like suicide.

In death, the Harmons are reunited as a family and as permanent residents of the house, which they haunt with the intention of keeping future tenants away. It is an ending that makes sense within the story logic of the show, but it is less-than-satisfying to me.

And yet, I’ve written a lot about the show in this post, haven’t I? This season has a sense of style that should be commended, and all of the actors seem to think that they are in a much better series. Both of these factors elevate what is essentially a mishmash homage to all things horror. The series looks good, the characters all seem to be earnest, with Jessica Lange often seeming to display her Academy Awards (that’s right: she has two of them) just slightly out of the camera frame. But, ultimately, the plot of the season is a confused and often misguided snarl of storylines, blending true-life crime with urban legends in visually arresting ways that seem to lack heart.

I’m not panning this series. No, not at all. There are plenty of reasons to watch this. I understand why this is often considered influential television. Much like its less-gory predecessor Twin Peaks, it’s simply a matter of style over substance. In the end, there’s just no there there. I’m not dismissing the notion of watching the other nine seasons, but I’m also not in a hurry to do so.

Firewater’s Don’t-Make-Me-Kill-You-Again Report Card: C+

I suspect diehard fans of the series may disagree with this grade. I can live with that.

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