Why American Horror Story Works

    **DISCLAIMER: for those worried about graphic content; there are no disturbing or bizarre pictures in this blog**


    I absolutely love American Horror Story. I think Ryan Murphy is a genius, albeit a weird genius.


    The anthology horror television series has been running since October 2011 and is currently starting its sixth season.


    Many have criticized the series for being over-the-top and unnecessarily graphic. Honestly, I don’t know why that surprises anyone, because Ryan Murphy is known for being over-the-top.


    While the show definitely is quite graphic in certain situations, it’s still a television series and has limits. Hollywood horror films are where you would see much more graphic content.


    So why even with all the criticism does American Horror Story stay on air and get renewed for new seasons? Why does this show work? Well I’ll tell you.


    New Stories & Fresh Characters


    One reason why American Horror Story draws back a sizable audience each year is due to its anthology format.


    An anthology format series means each season tells a different story with different characters and is nothing like any of the other seasons. Sometimes, and in the case of American Horror Story, the cast is generally the same. So these repertory actors play different characters each season.


    I think this is a great format to tell stories. In today’s society we are always eager to move onto the next big thing, so it can become difficult to stay attached to anything.


    Think of a show you really like. Got it? Okay. So you’re watching the season two finale of your favourite show and as the credits begin to roll, you realize you have to wait nine months or more for season three in order to find out what happens next. That sucks right?


    With American Horror Story, however, that’s not the case. Yes, you have to wait nine months for the next season, but the story of whatever season you just finished watching is all wrapped up. The next season will be completely fresh.


    It’s actually a much more relaxing way to watch a television series. (Did you catch the irony there? Relaxing to watch a horror show?) You can get super into the show, but rest easy and not be constantly wondering what happens next.


    Real Characters In Horrifying Situations


    Again like I said above, Ryan Murphy is known for being over-the-top. So most of his characters often end up being very exaggerated. Not all of them, but most.


    This doesn’t hurt the story. In fact it adds a very interesting reality in which the heroes of the story reside.


    Each season, there are always one or two, sometimes three characters that are very down to earth and generally good people. They are the ones we identify with.


    As an audience we attach ourselves emotionally to these down to earth characters and follow them through horrifying event after horrifying event.

    To use an outside example, J.J. Abrams has talked about balancing intimacy with hyper reality. I think American Horror Story does this extremely well.


    We get attached to the heroes, who then pull us through these strange events and interactions with exaggerated characters. So despite the extremes Ryan Murphy creates, the emotional connections still exist.


    This also ups the tension in the story as the situation our heroes go through become more terrifying due to our emotional attachment.


    Any good horror film or series does this well, and American Horror Story proves this approach works.


    This Isn’t Your Stereotypical Horror


    When you think of a horror film what comes to mind first? Scary monsters? Haunted buildings? Home invasions perhaps?


    While these definitely exist in American Horror Story, the show transcends the usual horror standards and adds a very fresh element.


    What is that element? Psychological horror.


    Now you’re probably thinking that psychological horror isn’t really that fresh, but there is a big difference between psychological horror and a psychological thriller.


    Most films that claim to be psychological horrors, are actually psychological thrillers. In those films, we feel the thrill and identify with what is happening inside a character’s mind.


    But in psychological horror, the audience should be so deep into the character’s thoughts and mindset that they feel the horror the character is feeling. We as an audience become fully engrossed in the situation and everything seems darker and scarier. This often translates in shifting in your seat, biting your nails, eating food, or any nervous habits.


    So not only do we feel the horror, we actually act out how scared we are. This is the fresh element offered by this show.


    American Horror Story strives to disturb us with its psychological horror. And that doesn’t mean scare us with graphic content. Instead, it puts us as the audience into the character’s state of mind and forces us to feel what they’re going through.


    So now not only are we scared, we are disturbed, which is so much more realistic. Now you’re thinking that that’s not okay and you don’t want to feel that way when you’re watching horror.


    But isn’t it? Isn’t that exactly what you’re truly searching for when watching horror? Not just to be freaked out at a jump scare, but also to get drawn into the story and connect with what is really going on?


    American Horror Story does this so well. Yes, we are scared of the situations, but we are also disturbed by the different characters’ actions.


    This is incredibly engaging, more than just waiting for the next scare. Instead we feel the horror all the way through.


    Imagine you’re walking through a graveyard at night. There are spooky sounds going off around you and it’s eerily quiet. This is already an unnerving situation. Then when something jumps out at you, yes, that’s also scary, but you were already scared because of the situation.


    This is what horror is supposed to be.




    While I totally understand if you don’t rush off and start watching American Horror Story, that’s not the point.


    I’m not trying to convince you to watch a horror television show. Some people don’t like horror and that’s completely fine.


    I am merely trying to convey that horror is not wrong and that American Horror Story is still on air because it’s enthralling, not because its creators are freaks and don’t care about what they put on our screens.


    The show draws us in not because it’s graphic and we’re desensitized, but because it tells a great story and is realistic and truthful.


    So again, if you don’t watch this show and don’t like horror, I’m not trying to bash you. Rather, I am saying horror is not wrong and being disturbed is not wrong.


    American Horror Story is definitely not for everyone, but it works just the same as any other show and therefore should be viewed as such.

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    • Connor Campbell


      Connor Campbell is a writer/director, who lives in Calgary, Canada.


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